Updated June 21
Louis Gay had three months sober under his belt, and he needed a place to live.
The 51-year-old West Philadelphia man spent a lifetime misusing alcohol before he entered treatment for addiction a few months ago. He started out at a Community Behavioral Health-contracted residential facility in his neighborhood, where he spent 30 days entering recovery before moving on to another facility in New York.
Last week, he wanted to come home to Philly. So he reached back out to his social worker, Sean Garraty, who works at the CBH-contracted facility. Garraty connected him to a South Philly recovery house called Clean Days & Sober Nights.
It was then, Gay said, that his sobriety was truly tested.
“They told me I’d have to deal with trials and tribulations,” Gay said, “but not from the people who I was seeking help from.”
Bed bugs, roaches and drug dealers
Gay’s first interaction with Clean Days & Sober Nights was luxurious. Last Saturday, an employee named Frank picked him up in a brand new Lexus.
“I’m thinking, boy this must be a good spot,” Gay said.
Before arriving at the recovery house, Gay said he paid Frank a $200 deposit. Then, he said, Frank drove him to the house at Fifth and Oregon.
At first, the door was locked, Gay said, which seemed to anger Frank. The recovery house employee screamed at the two residents living inside, Gay said, and cursed at them for locking the door.
“That was a red flag,” Gay remembers thinking about Frank’s treatment of the staffer. “You’re gonna make this guy relapse. He made a mistake. He locked the bottom door.”
Frank took him to another recovery house in the neighborhood, where Gay said he found bed bugs, roaches and generally dirty conditions. The residents there complained about the conditions too, he said, and the way they were treated by Frank. That was the final turnoff.
“The house was run down, there were drug dealers on the block,” Gay said. “I didn’t even stay there.”
Cutting ties with a bad resource
Indeed, Gay left right away and moved in with his girlfriend in her apartment at 22nd Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue — not quite the sober, supportive recovery environment he originally sought.
He asked Frank for his money back, since he never ended up staying in the house, in the hope he could get into another facility. But no go. After Frank repeatedly said he’d give Gay the money back, he ghosted. Stopped answering his phone. Disappeared.
The CBH-contracted facility in West Philly that sent Gay there in the first place will no longer refer people to Clean Days & Sober Nights, social worker Garraty confirmed to Billy Penn. Though he’s used it as a resource before, he has now cut all ties with the recovery house network.
Garraty even fought for Gay to get his money back — he called and texted Frank repeatedly. In a voicemail on Garraty’s phone obtained by Billy Penn, Frank can be heard referring to residents of the recovery house as “duds” and “dogs.”
“That’s not what recovery is about,” Garraty said, “ripping people off who have nothing.”
Frank declined to comment or provide his last name. Joe Mastrando, the owner of Clean Days & Sober Nights, claimed to Billy Penn that there have never been roaches or bed bugs in his recovery houses. He also said it’s policy to not give refunds.
The importance of good recovery housing
This particular interaction has resorted to a he-said-she-said battle over the conditions at Clean Days & Sober Nights. Gay insists the house was unlivable, while the owner denies his claims.
But no matter the outcome, Garraty said, the resulting stress alone is enough to make someone with substance user disorder relapse.
“This can be very detrimental to one’s treatment,” he explained. “It can be traumatic. It can cause someone to relapse and return to their environment where they didn’t want to go.”
If the accusations are true, this certainly isn’t the first known instance of poor conditions in a recovery house — and it certainly won’t be the last. But it’s cause for concern that Gay was referred there from a city-funded facility.
“He took my word,” Garraty said. “He trusted me, and now it looks like I didn’t do my research.”
Clean Days & Sober Nights is a privately run sober house, meaning it isn’t subject to regulation from the city.
On a statewide level, Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation in December that ensures recovery houses that receive public funds or referrals from state, county or federal agencies are to be regulated. That doesn’t apply to houses that receive referrals from city agencies, like CBH.
In Philly, there are plenty of recovery residences that are regulated and certified by the Pennsylvania Alliance for Recovery Residences, which ensures people in recovery are provided safe and comfortable living conditions. But this certification is not mandatory.
“To put it in black and white, the difference is that a certified house goes through a process and wants to adhere to operational standards,” Way told Billy Penn last summer. “The certified houses want to go through the vetting process to make sure their property, their operations are running on a certain level.’”
Living in North Philly, Gay still attends regular 12-step meetings at the Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center. He works at a cell phone store at Kensington and Allegheny avenues. He’s making ends meet — but the loss of recovery housing and a couple hundred dollars has weighed heavy.
Especially because he borrowed money from his father to get into the house in the first place, Gay said, not staying there caused a rift.
“He doesn’t believe me any more,” Gay said about his dad. “This shut that door.”
For the time being, he’s still sober. But the experience did make him distrust the recovery process.
“This is a place you’re supposed to go when you need a safe haven,” Gay said. “How can a recovery house take your money?”