Martino: Sober Homes Should be Addressed by the City Council

Do you know what a Sober Home is? If you don’t, you should. The chances are if you live in a single family neighborhood in Palm Beach Gardens you do, or probably soon will. Sober Homes are group homes for people who are recovering from addiction issues, such as, drug and alcohol abuse. While living in the Sober Home these people, who come from all over the country, have stringent rules they must follow and may undergo periodic drug testing. These “homes” are locating in residential neighborhoods at an increasing pace and can pose various and different problems for these neighborhoods.

Sober Living Homes, as they are also known, is a creature that surfaced from an amendment to the Federal Fair Housing Act passed by Congress in 1988 to protect persons with disabilities and families with children and from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which mandates “for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities” enacted in 1990 by Congress. The ADA more or less recognizes addiction as a psychiatric disabling illness. As a compassionate society we must recognize the disease of drug and alcohol addiction and the devastating effects it has on the individual, families, friends, and the community as a whole. However, the combination of these Acts with their amendments, mixed with the bureaucratic interpretive rules that have been written, and add to this associated State legislative and bureaucratic activities, and you have a formidable governmental shield for what is now a National multi-billion dollar industry. Big government, big business and big money, can and often does, lead to fraud, abuse, and bigger societal problems.

For local County and Municipal governments these Federal and State Sober Home mandates present a growing problem of significance. How do local governments maintain the integrity of their neighborhoods, the esteem of their property values, the safety and protection of their residents, the essentials of their governing Charters, and their basic Home Rule powers? The governance of these quality of life issues need to be balanced with the needs of the disabled protected by these Acts. That is the challenge and it’s a daunting one. It’s not an easy task but it’s doable. I would propose a more proactive approach by the City Council of Palm Beach Gardens then is currently being pursued. The following are suggestions …

  1. As a local government the City Council should recognize and admit there is a problem and give it a public airing. Identification of Sober Home locations probably would be a good start, if not already available. Possibly, the assimilation of a data base would help to prevent over concentration in any one particular neighborhood. Neighborhood concentration is detrimental to the existing residents, as well as, it defeats the goal of localized non-institutional integration back into society of the addicted because the concentration suggests a semblance of institutionalization. The City Council should request staff to research the problem and report back with interventionist solutions that are non-discriminatory. Consideration of other, Local, State, and National resolutions that have proven successful may be useful. Keep our Federal and State elected officials informed of the City’s concerns and efforts while continuing to insist on their cooperation to lessen the fervor of the problem. Continue the conversation with monthly workshops, updates, including public participation, until reasonable solutions have been realized.
  2. To address the problems Sober Homes may present, the City Council should modernize, update and reform all zoning codes, not just single-family areas, by carefully crafting amendments that apply equally to able and disabled people alike. Parking codes, health codes, and safety issues should be updated with equality as the goal while considering Sober Homes in the equation. Zoning code definitions should be reviewed, refreshed, and new ones created, if needed. The Acts discussed above do not preempt local zoning laws but they do prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities, thus, the importance of code equality for both able and disabled persons.
  3. Third, work with other local municipalities and the County. Encourage them to take similar steps concerning Sober Homes. This will prevent the problem from being passed on to another jurisdiction. Request the County and State League of Cities organizations to take more vocal stances on the Sober Home issue and to lobby with more emphasis of the urgency of the problem while continuing to research for solutions.
  4. Fourth, Sober Homes have economic value and economic consequences, also. The City Council should consult with the business community in seeking solutions. Business oriented organizations, such as, the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Development Board, and the Economic Council could be valuable resources for ideas that can contribute to solving the Sober Home issues. Another positive resource could be the Palm Beach County Task Force that was created to brainstorm for solutions to make Sober Homes’ community assets rather than liabilities.

These are my opinions and suggestions on the burgeoning Sober Home issue. I am sure there are many others. I would encourage the Palm Beach Gardens City Council to give concerted effort to this issue promptly.

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