Recovering drug addicts from all over the country come to South Florida to try and get sober. Studies show as many as 85% of them will relapse without the community of support that can be found in a residential sober home. However, recent changes have more families asking questions about safety as they find sober homes moving into their neighborhoods.
An agency called the Florida Association of Recovery Residences or FARR was just appointed, November 31, by the state of Florida to begin certifying these homes. According to FARR, less stigma surrounding rehab and greater access to healthcare has sober homes and recovery residences popping up in every community and catering to every demographic.
While these homes can be an amazing asset to help recovering drug addicts stay sober and reintegrate into society, many of them are insurance fraud factories where recovery is not the main concern. The real problem, according to law enforcement and many state lawmakers, is strong federal protections and little local control makes it hard to know the difference.
"I don't think anyone realizes how prevalent this is in South Florida," said an anonymous homeowner from one waterfront neighborhood we profiled for this story in Stuart.
"Are my kids safe? We don't know," he added.
He says a new neighbor has him desperate for help and afraid to be identified.
"Why are people so concerned?" asked Contact 5 Investigator Jared Werksma to another homeowner in the same neighborhood who also wishes to remain anonymous.
"They are concerned for their safety, they are concerned because they don't know who is in there," she said.
They both say they found out around Halloween that one of the waterfront homes in their neighborhood has become community housing, commonly called a "sober home," for recovering drug addicts.
"The same week we found out (News Channel 5) reported that there was a sexual predator that was on the loose," one of the homeowners said.
That sex offender was John Michael Janaskas, a convicted child rapist from Pennsylvania. Court ordered to drug rehab, Janaskas ended up at treatment facility in Martin County.
"This offender could have easily been staying in a house next to a family with children and we would have never known it," said Martin County Sheriff William Snyder when we interviewed him in November. Snyder says employees at the drug treatment facility that was supposed to provide housing for Janaskas ended up dropping him off in a Wal-Mart parking lot. It lead to a statewide manhunt until Janaskas turned himself in a few days later.
"What we have is almost a palpable anger in our community," said Sheriff Snyder when we interviewed him for this story in early December.
Snyder estimates there are now 200 sober homes housing 1,600 recovering addicts in Martin County; most of them from out of state.
"The majority of these homes act much more like criminal enterprises. They will not allow our deputies into the house; they don't want us on the property. There's an enormous amount of secrecy that goes on with these homes," said Sheriff Snyder.
Of the estimated 3,000 (and counting) sober homes in Florida, the vast majority are not licensed or regulated in any way. Yet the homes are protected by fair housing laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"How do you define an addict then in terms of protection?" asked Werksma. "An addict who is in recovery from addiction is protected as a disabled class," responded John Lehman, the President for the Florida Association of Recovery Residences.
Lehman says not wanting a sober home in your neighborhood is simple discrimination against people suffering from a disease.
"Fear causes people to think all sorts of crazy things that are not appropriate and would never stand up in a court of law," said Lehman.
The State of Florida just named FARR as the agency to begin certifying sober homes on a voluntary basis.
"The reason why it's voluntary certification is if it were mandated by the state then it would be a violation of fair housing law," said Lehman.
As of July 2016 non-certified sober homes will not be allowed to receive client referrals from licensed rehab facilities.
"That in turn would cut the supply and as a result most of the bad operators will go out of business," said Lehman.
Voluntary certification won't do anything to give local law enforcement more control over these federally- protected homes. Sheriff Snyder says law enforcement needs to be able to police sober homes like any other.
"Having 1,600 people with addiction problems in our community without us knowing who they are is definitely a prescription for some kind of public safety problem," said Sheriff Snyder.
"What would you like to see happen to change this situation?" asked Werksma.
"I would like to see the federal government get out of local government. I think people should write their congressman," said Snyder.
The Contact 5 Investigators continue to work with FARR as it begins this voluntary certification process to see if it does in fact increase local control of sober homes and put some of these "bad actors" out of business as FARR believes it will. FARR says around 500 sober homes have already applied for voluntary certification. The deadline is July 1st.