Tensions ran high as more than 100 people crowded into a meeting with the leaders of a new sober house on Humphrey Street in Marblehead.
“I empathize with these people, but I don’t want them in my backyard,” said one neighbor, who identified herself as an ER nurse. “What are you going to do about our property values?”
“And keeping our kids safe?” shouted another woman.
The men’s sober house opened about a month ago and is run by Vanderburgh House, which has 31 sober houses in seven states. Marblehead Fire Capt. Scott Murray, who is also an addiction counselor and social worker, is the supervisor at the house. He also supervises a Vanderburgh sober home in Beverly.
“I have 36 years of experience and have committed the rest of my life to helping alcoholics and addicts,” he told the crowd.
Murray spoke at the meeting along with Vanderburgh Executive Director Hunter Foote and Michelle Ngila with Worcester Services LLC, which bought the house and is leasing it to Murray.
“I grew up in a household where I learned first hand what alcoholism can do to a family,” said Foote, who founded Vanderburgh in 2016. “There is a huge need for this. Addiction is everywhere. Addiction is in Marblehead.”
Right now, three men live in the Marblehead sober house, but it has the capacity for as many as 20 residents. Rent starts at $235 a week.
Not a treatment center
Foote emphasized that the house is not a treatment center but a structured and supportive sober living community for people who have completed addiction treatment and are transitioning back into society. Drug tests are conducted twice a week, along with random searches. Residents have a 10 p.m. curfew and are assigned chores. Most work full- or part-time.
“They’re not vegging out at home or roaming the streets,” Foote said.
The average stay in a sober house is about three months, according to Murray.
‘Sneaking into the community’
Murray oversees and manages the house, but there is no full-time employee on site. One of the more senior residents volunteers as a “house mentor” and runs the weekly mandatory meetings and drug testing.
The house is licensed by the nonprofit Massachusetts Alliance of Sober Housing, which contracts with the state and conducts inspections. There are nearly 200 MASH-certified sober houses across the state, but not all sober houses are certified.
There are no special town zoning or permitting laws that apply to sober houses.
Neighbors, many shouting at times, accused Foote of “sneaking” into the community without notifying them first and hearing their concerns.
“I really don’t trust you,” one man said.
Most of Vanderburgh’s sober houses are in cities, and many people at the meeting argued that a residential neighborhood is not the right location.
Neighbors grilled Foote and Murray about the screening process for applicants. The house does not allow people who are sex offenders or arsonists but currently does not do criminal background checks on applicants. It instead relies on virtual or phone screenings and information from referring treatment centers or parole officers.
Several people at the meeting asked if Vanderburgh could conduct criminal background checks moving forward.
“If I want to volunteer at my kid’s school, I need to get a CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) check,” said one woman.
“We’re all good people here,” said another. “We’d like a level of comfort. You could make your requirements more rigorous.”
People also expressed worry about addicts’ relapse rates and what they called “loosey goosey” supervision on the site. The house will welcome people who have been sober for as little as two weeks, but “95% of folks are 30 days sober or more,” Murray said. He acknowledged that relapse rates are high among addicts but added that they do much better in settings like sober houses.
“How high should I build the fence around my house?” yelled one man.
Another man suggested drug-sniffing dogs be brought into the house to search and act as a deterrent. Another worried that the sober house residents might hide their drugs along the bike path.
Murray said that at the Beverly house, police have only been called three times in the last year. He and Foote emphasized that the people who choose to stay in a sober house are committed to their recovery.
Neighbors asked about what they called a “serious incident” involving a sober house resident allegedly overdosing on the street. Murray denied that and said the resident, feeling unsafe, called 9-1-1 from inside the house and then went outside to wait for the ambulance.
Police chief weighs in
When asked if he had concerns about the sober house, Police Chief Dennis King told the Marblehead Current, “I respect that people have a right to their views and opinions and concerns about sober houses, but our job at the Marblehead Police Department is to treat people fairly and with respect.
“If calls come in that represent a pattern of disruptive or disturbance-like behavior, we will address that with the property owners like we would any other property owner in the same situation,” he added.
King said he planned to stop by the sober house to introduce himself and establish a connection.
‘Dreams are in conflict‘
Foote said he would look into possibly conducting criminal checks and report back. Residents wrote down their email addresses to receive updates and requested a follow-up meeting. Foote agreed to a meeting in the next few months. Foote and Murray said residents can report any grievances to MASH, which will then investigate.
As the meeting wrapped up after nearly three hours, several people talked about hiring a lawyer.
“I understand that your dream may be to help addicts,” one woman said. “But our dream is to live in Marblehead safely. Our dreams are in conflict with one another.”