VENTNOR — Jennifer Hansen walked into the kitchen of a large home by the beach, saying hello to residents and asking them about their day.
The dining room was bright and had a table that could seat eight. The living room was painted in a warm beige, and leather couches were arranged facing a television above a fireplace.
It looked like any other ordinary house by the sea. And it is, except its residents are part of the Serenity House sober-living program and working on putting their lives back together after opioid addiction.
As addiction reaches epidemic proportions in New Jersey, specialists say sober-living opportunities are crucial to encourage recovered addicts. But limited regulation and oversight cause many sober-living homes to exist in a gray area of housing law.
Gov. Chris Christie pushed for more work on the state’s opioid addiction epidemic in his State of the State address this month, which included expanding the number of sober-living homes by easing “an overly restrictive statutory, regulatory and code environment for residents that provide supportive and substance-free housing in our communities.”
But in order for that to happen, New Jersey’s lawmakers have to ease current regulations or create a third path for establishing these live-in recovery communities.
Under current laws, “you either have a licensed boarding home or an Oxford or Oxford-like House,” Hansen said. “If you don’t fit into either of those boxes, they don’t see you as legitimate. There needs to be another box.”
Licensed sober living homes are at the discretion of the state departments of Human Services and Community Affairs. The federal Fair Housing Act says people living together in sobriety and recovery are protected from discrimination under disability laws.
Hansen is currently fighting to get her sober living homes accepted with the same level of protection that Oxford House has under the Fair Housing Act.
Other homes can function as licensed boarding homes, but most operate under the radar and are unaccredited and unlicensed.
Current policies have kept Hansen in litigation with the state over her sober-living homes for the past 2½ years as she argued that her nonprofit, supervised homes for recovering men and women don’t fall into traditional categories.
“We try to sit down with them and say, ‘What’s the goal, what do you need, where do you want to get to?’” Hansen said. “We’re seeing younger and younger people come in, some who don’t even know how to go grocery shopping.”
Serenity Houses provide up to an 18-month stay, and residents pay their own rent, cook, clean, get jobs, go to 12-step recovery programs and sort out how to pay court fines, get back their care licenses and go back to school. All staff, who are nonclinical, are trained in use of the opioid antidote Narcan in case a resident relapses.
Hansen modeled her homes based on her own experience in a sober-living program. Now a mother of three, Hansen has been in recovery from a heroin addiction for 21 years. After going through detox and treatment at Seabrook House in Bridgeton, she entered a sober-living transitional facility in California.
She used her experience in California to model and shape her local network of Serenity sober-living homes and Hansen House clinical halfway houses.
Oxford House, a national recovery housing network, includes about 140 peer-led group recovery housing locations in New Jersey alone. The houses are licensed by the state, and funding is provided to help manage the large network.
The homes are democratically run and self-supported by recovering addicts. No direct treatment, professional supervision or clinical services are provided in the homes, but members often attend outside 12-step meetings and professional help as they see fit.
There is no stay limit for residents.
“The ideal situation, the most common, is when people come to us from halfway houses or treatment,” said George Kent, Oxford House regional manager. “Going back to their old neighborhoods is not a great idea.”
While Oxford House has been successful in getting state housing approval while others have struggled, Kent said the demand for these types of housing opportunities still exceeds the number of beds available because of the growing epidemic.
Alan Oberman, executive director and CEO of the John Brooks Recovery Center in Atlantic City and Pleasantville, said the lack of state oversight has made it difficult for inpatient and outpatient treatment centers like his to know which sober-living homes to recommend to clients.
Because a large number of homes goes unnoticed, unaccredited and unlicensed, it is hard for treatment professionals to tell which ones have proved successful recovery models and which are in violation of basic housing codes or making a profit off recovering residents.
Hansen said she hopes legislators, including Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, and Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, who have sponsored recovery bills in the past, figure out a way to properly regulate and one day provide funding for sober-living homes.
“People come to us completely broken with no hope at all and completely turn it around,” she said.