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Mobtown Beat

Houses of Ill Repute

City Leaders and Neighborhood Groups Try to Get a Handle on the Hundreds of Unlicensed Drug-Treatment Group Homes in Baltimore

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Getting her House in Order: Deborah Cohen, who was once a drug addict, runs Harmony House, one of many of Baltimore's unlicensed drug-treatment group homes.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 9/15/2004

Harmony House, a group home for recovering drug addicts in Southwest Baltimore’s Irvington neighborhood, was the site of some disharmony in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Sept. 8. Later that afternoon Deborah Cohen is picking up the pieces.

“He called me at 5:30 this morning and begged for a refund, because when he got his check—his SSI or whatever—we take out the next month’s rent,” Cohen says over the phone to a psychiatric nurse who oversees one of the home’s new (now former) residents. “He had money because . . . he borrowed $100, blah blah blah, so that burned a hole in his pocket.”

The nurse is negotiating on behalf of a young man who went on a stripper binge on the Block last night, causing a commotion there and then another one here at the house while the other residents were trying to sleep. As Cohen talks to the nurse, several of the home’s residents, arrayed on the plush, well-used living room couches, second her words as she describes the scene of a few hours before.

“Now, I’m probably in the minority, but I think he has to have consequences for his choices,” Cohen tells the nurse. “He really pissed me off when he started in with, ‘Oh, how are you gonna feel when I kill myself because I don’t have a place to live?’ He really blew it with that.”

Cohen, herself a recovering heroin addict who’s been clean since 1984, knows all too well that kind of typical addict behavior. And she’s trying to help her clients break those addiction-related behaviors in part by providing, for $100 per week, a clean, safe bed in a home with other recovering addicts. This house, although unlicensed by any city or state drug-treatment bureaucracy, has strict rules: Residents must attend 12-step meetings and get a sponsor to help them through their recovery; everyone needs to find a job as soon as possible; everyone has to respect the other residents; clean up your own mess.

Not everyone follows the rules, though. Cohen and others—residents of this house, neighbors of other recovery houses, and city officials—say many other group homes for recovering drug addicts do nothing about rule breakers as long as their money rolls in. Soon those houses are out of control. “I’ve been in every recovery program in Baltimore,” says Kevin, a Harmony House resident. “A lot of them are more like glorified shooting galleries.”

That’s been a problem for years in Baltimore, city officials agree. But as of yet, no one has a plan for how to deal with it. City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson says his department—which oversees the city’s 528 licensed, regulated drug treatment beds—doesn’t even know how many unlicensed so-called “recovery houses” exist. That’s because the houses look from the outside like any other—they just house 10 or 20 unrelated adults instead of, say, a family of five. “We tried to identify them, but it’s almost impossible,” he says. “You have to go door to door.”

Everyone seems to agree there are a lot of recovery houses in the city and that they, as Beilenson says, “run the gamut from being very well-run, meeting housing code, and having an appropriate philosophy of recovery, to just sticking people in rowhouses as a way to make money.”

At a July 27 meeting organized by the nonprofit Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), dozens of city residents complained about conditions surrounding unlicensed recovery houses in their neighborhoods. Complaints of loitering and petty crime melded with loss of privacy and the fear and despair that accompanied the knowledge that many recovery-house owners simply fill up their buildings at night and kick the residents out by day, offering no treatment, counseling or job-placement help.

“It’s intimidating to open your front door and see 30 or 40 people standing on your block,” says Constance Maddox, president of the Madison East End Improvement Association. At the meeting, she mentioned loitering, drug activity, petty crime, litter, and noise in connection to a house in her neighborhood. “There’s no program in place,” she says, adding that city housing inspectors were “nonresponsive to our complaints.”

That so many people had complaints about the unlicensed group homes surprised meeting organizers, who had called the meeting to explain the legal imperative for a faster process to locate new, licensed drug-treatment centers—which are as different from the recovery houses as a hospital’s operating room is from a recovery room.

The treatment centers, which include methadone maintenance clinics as well as intensive, inpatient medical detoxification programs, are federally funded and must meet rigorous guidelines. But Baltimore—and most other municipalities—requires their owners to submit to more public hearings and other regulations than required of the owners of other types of medical clinics. That, say advocates for drug treatment, amounts to illegal discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. Changing the city’s law is “a no-brainer,” city Planning director Otis Rolley III repeated several times at the July 27 meeting. Currently, two bills before the City Council would make the needed changes.

But the council seems to be balking.

“You should slow down,” 6th District Councilman Melvin Stukes warned at the July meeting. “Don’t microwave this bill.”

Rolley replied that he and other administration officials had spent a year on the bills already and compared the city’s existing rules to the old racist zoning codes.

His tone annoyed Stukes, who sarcastically replied, “I’m glad you did what you did, Otis. Tell me who’s the boss.”

CPHA had hoped to see the bills passed this fall, but 1st District Councilwoman Lois Garey says between seven and nine other council members (besides her) oppose the zoning bills. “If we do nothing until December, then they die automatically,” she says. “And I’m leaving office in December.”

Garey says she’ll schedule hearings on the bills, but she doesn’t see much happening soon—on either the drug-treatment centers or the unlicensed recovery houses. “I don’t know that there is a way to regulate” the recovery houses, she says. “I have suggested to the advocates that they help remedy that problem first.”

On July 30, CPHA executive director Michael Sarbanes and CPHA drug-treatment director Carlos Hardy tried to get that ball rolling with a letter to Mayor Martin O’Malley, which detailed the outrage some expressed at the forum and urged the mayor “to focus on this issue as quickly as possible.” The CPHA proposal suggested that the recovery houses be brought into the formal drug-treatment system, including government funding and oversight.

Rolley says his department was part of discussions after the forum and has been working with City Council President Sheila Dixon’s office to develop a response.

“Even though [the recovery houses] are not tied directly to that legislation,” Rolley says, “it was very clear that the legislation was going nowhere until those issues are dealt with.”

He says he thinks Dixon will announce the formation of a task force to handle the unlicensed recovery houses soon.

Cohen, meanwhile, is working on Harmony House. Cohen bought this 10-bedroom group home this past spring for $90,000 from a man she says she’d known a while. To her knowledge, he ran decent recovery houses. She says she bought the house because she was disappointed with the housing alternatives that had been offered to her stepson, who she says is also an addict. Cohen served on the board of directors for drug-rehabilitation houses in the mid to late 1980s and had also worked as a drug counselor. So when she inherited a bit of money late last year, Cohen approached Michael Buccheri about buying this place.

“I thought it was despicable that people were taken advantage of,” she says. “People who own these houses are recovering addicts themselves, and they’re ripping them [fellow recovering addicts] off.”

Cohen also allows that many of recovery-house owners were “always saying how much they made on these places,” and she wanted a bit of income. But, she says, so far she’s lost quite a bit.

Cohen says Buccheri misled her about the home’s condition, leaving her with 17 housing-code violations and a broken furnace on which he had made an insurance claim but left unrepaired. She’s paid some of the residents $8 an hour to demolish a rotted addition on the rear of the house, rebuild the front porch and a rear deck, and clean out the basement. Some interior painting has been done but the exterior still needs attention.

Buccheri, who owns another recovery house but says he’s “liquidating” for retirement, says he put in a claim on the furnace but didn’t collect. “I told her everything and showed her everything. There was some old termite damage, and she held me to that,” he says, adding that he paid Cohen $1,800 at settlement to cover that problem.

“I lost a lot of money on it,” Buccheri says of the house he bought in 1994 for $87,000, according to tax records. “I could have sold that for $140,000.”

Indeed, a house across the street from Harmony House is listed currently for $150,000. Drug recovery houses cost money to run, Buccheri concludes. Asked why he bought more than one, he replies, “I got into it because I thought it was lucrative.”

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