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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Some sober living houses not up to code on fire safety

By MARK HAYWARD
July 16. 2018 3:33PM
Richie's House facility resident Tim Bill, right, talks about life at the house and the group dynamic with resident Ryan Pelletier and administrator Kelly Riley. The Manchester Fire Department said some sober houses violate fire codes, most notably by the lack of a sprinkler system. (BRUCE TAYLOR/UNION LEADER)

As drug users grope and kick their way through the submerged cave that is addiction, it becomes apparent that expensive treatment programs alone won’t rescue them.

That’s why there is a recovery movement to work out the human essentials. Job, meals, drug-free activities, support from peers. And a home. To meet that end, sober living houses have opened up around Manchester and elsewhere in the last five years.

The one I visited this week was clean and neat, but I got the feeling that was because the residents don’t own a lot of stuff. There’s a kitchen table and chairs along with frayed couches in the living room.

It’s a home for people who have lost theirs. They come fresh from treatment programs, jails or prisons. Many are enrolled in drug court or its county jail equivalent. One wore an ankle bracelet. Most have to check in with courts or parole officers. Drug tests are common.

The resident with the most freedom is Maggie, the house’s aging bulldog.

“It’s my home. It’s helped save my life. I didn’t have anywhere to go when I got out of jail,” said Ryan Pelletier, who has lived there since December and has a job making counter tops.

Residents say there are probably 10 sober houses that operate in the greater Manchester area.

They are safe havens against drug use, but maybe not deadly fires.

Recently, the Manchester Fire Department informed the manager of two sober houses that they violate life-saving fire codes. The biggest violation? The lack of a sprinkler system that would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

“With our building construction and density, fire codes are very important to the city,” said Peter Lennon, the city fire marshal. He stressed that the department has nothing against sober living; it merely treats sober-living houses as rooming houses.

Richie's House mascot Maggie sits still for a pet from Ryan Pelletier as administrator Kelly Riley looks on. (BRUCE TAYLOR/UNION LEADER)

Kelly Riley, who operates two sober living triple deckers, said the regulations would force her to either double the $150 weekly rent that she charges or close her doors. That would put 27 people out on the street.

“A sprinkler system is not going to save the life of somebody who might be overdosing on drugs,” said Riley, who is the community outreach director at Hope for New Hampshire Recovery.

City fire officials haven’t shut down any sober houses. But that may be inevitable. Last month, then-state Fire Marshal Bill Degnan rejected waivers for two Manchester sober living houses. Another two are on the desk of acting Fire Marshal Max Schultz.

Mayor Joyce Craig said Friday that state regulations aren’t set up for sober living houses. Because of that, officials don’t know how many sober houses are out there. And when they do find out about them, they put them in a category where they don’t fit.

“We have to address the need (for sober living), and we need to make sure everyone is safe,” Craig said. “We need help at the state level, then we can do things at the local level.”

For example, Fire Chief Dan Goonan said he’d be willing to discuss alternatives to expensive sprinkler systems. And he’d like to see a fire code provision changed that requires sprinklers if more than three unrelated people live in an apartment. That’s a sore spot with Eric Spofford, CEO of Granite Recovery Center, which operates two sober living houses in the city.

“If a fire catches, do you think the flames say ‘Wait a minute, there are brothers and sisters and cousins here; slow down,’” Spofford said.

All sober houses are different. This week, I visited one of the two sober living triple deckers that Riley operates. 

Potential residents are drug tested before they get a bed. The initial curfew is 9 p.m., which loosens once a resident proves he is responsible. Each house has an on-site resident-manager, who gets a discount on rent. And there are rules — smoking outside only (but most residents vape), no drugs or alcohol, no medically assisted treatment such as methadone, meals are your own responsibility, no overnight visitors.

A relapse gets a response of treatment appointments and loss of privileges. Riley estimates that 10 percent of residents get kicked out.

Riley visits the two buildings daily, meeting residents and asking about their progress. She’s lost a son to drugs, and her aggressive mothering keeps most of the residents in line. 

“She seems to be a pretty tough cookie. They seem like they’re trying; I get a sense they’re trying,” said Richard Cobbett, who lives across the street. He’s had to speak to Riley about a rowdy night of fireworks and a syringe-littering resident. She quickly addressed both complaints, he said.



Residents of Richie's House facility at Hall and Prescott streets in Manchester gathered recently to talk about life at the sober living house. (BRUCE TAYLOR/UNION LEADER)

If Riley weren’t in the picture, Cobbett said, he’d be worried that the house wasn’t being closely watched.

Watching is what Fire Chief Goonan wants. By his calculation, Riley could be bringing in $250,000 a year, and she doesn’t have to get a simple license required for just about every other business in Manchester. (Riley disputes Goonan’s estimate of the number of residents and thus the revenue she generates; she doesn’t make a profit, she said.)

Riley understands that some sober houses are too crowded and lax on rules. Yet, if the city gets too heavy handed on regulation, it will drive everyone underground.

Goonan said something has to be done.

“It’s like a Wild West out there. Everyone does what they want,” he said.

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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