Volunteers from Savage Sisters Recovery, one of the founding organizations of HER

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Bed bugs. Unusable kitchens. Drug use in houses. Fatal overdoses on premises.

These are some of the conditions residents of recovery houses in Philadelphia have been contending with for years, living in unsafe environments while trying to maintain newly won sobriety.

A committee known as HER — for Harmful Ethics Reduction — has been working behind the scenes since last year to improve the city’s recovery house scene.

The group is going public with its work for the first time this week, as recovery houses in Pennsylvania begin applying for new state licensing intended to give more structure to a mostly unregulated industry.

HER’s 18 current members hail from Philadelphia and the collar counties, and represent all facets of the community. They’re treatment providers, harm reduction advocates, owners of reputable recovery houses, and people with lived experience.

“HER is an anonymous safe space for people to make reports about unethical/illegal experiences at recovery houses,” said HER member Dominique B., who wanted to maintain anonymity because of her history of addiction and homelessness. Dominique has been in recovery for six years, volunteers at a recovery house, is about to complete an associate’s degree in drug and alcohol counseling, and plans to obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work.

“Upon receiving the reports, we discuss, prioritize, and then reach out to owners to offer services and resources,” Dominique said, adding that HER’s goal was not to shut down recovery houses but rather to help owners and managers improve conditions.

For instance, HER offers recovery houses training on opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan, advice about how to install safes to hold residents’ legally prescribed medications, and instructions for how to create more structure for those living in the houses, among other recommendations.

HER also maintains a list of reputable houses, as well as ones that have received many complaints.

New regulations for recovery houses in Pennsylvania took effect in December. Since there was previously very little oversight, statistics don’t exist for how many are actually operating in the state.

“In terms of how many unlicensed houses [there are in the state], we truly have no idea,” said Jordan Lewis, policy director for the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

But she’s optimistic the new licensing process will improve the industry.

Only two licenses approved so far, but 100 more in the works

To get one of the new licenses, any recovery houses connected to public funding — whether it’s directly, via referrals from facilities that receive federal or state money, or because residents are using publicly funded treatments — must allow DDAP officials to inspect the premises.

Licensed recovery houses also must:

  • get state police criminal and background checks for all who work there
  • develop written policies to protect residents’ rights
  • not discriminate against residents’ and workers’ gender identities
  • maintain records of all payments
  • have Narcan and receive Narcan training

“I hope we get lots of licenses so people can see on our website who are meeting standards,” said DDAP Policy Director Lewis. “At the end of the day, we hope these regulations are giving residents and their families peace of mind.”

So far, two recovery houses have been licensed, one in a rural part of the state, and one in Philadelphia (Why Not Prosper). Another 74 houses are in some stage of completing their applications, per Lewis, and 26 houses are under review by DDAP’s licensing division.

However, owners who do not want to seek state licensure can just hang up a shingle, require private payment from residents, and go unregulated.

This has contributed to problems with recovery house conditions through the years, current and former residents say.

Nicole I., who asked to withhold her last name because of having battled opioid use disorder and having experienced homelessness off and on in Philadelphia for 6 years, said that after one rehab she landed in an overcrowded, filthy recovery house that the owners rarely checked on. At another recovery house in 2019, Nicole overdosed in the bathroom. Luckily, residents revived her with several rounds of Narcan and called an ambulance.

Because of lack of oversight, individuals were using and dealing right there — a major problem for people trying to maintain sobriety, and something reputable recovery house owners prevent with vigilant oversight.

Nicole has been in recovery since October, 2019, now lives in Florida, and is expecting a baby.

Sarah Laurel is one of the founding members of HER. With her brother Adam Alasad, she runs Savage Sisters Recovery, a Philadelphia nonprofit with five houses, offering residents safe, structured, trauma-informed homes in which to heal and maintain their sobriety.

Every resident has chores, participates in activities such as yoga and kickboxing, receives trauma-informed therapy, and must work part-time. If a resident is not ready or able to work, Savage Sisters helps him or her get there, said Laurel, who has been in recovery for opioid use disorder for five years.

Savage Sisters has applied for a state license.

“This is a life and death situation,” said Laurel, who said she has witnessed horrific recovery house conditions. “When we hold those accountable who are offering care, we create a safe space for people.”