EDITORIAL: One day at a time

With any luck, the immediate furor over the establishment of a new sober house on Humphrey Street has receded, and we are one step closer to the residents of the sober house being able to live in harmony with their neighbors.

We hope and expect that the home’s operator, Vanderburgh House, and its supervisor, Marblehead Fire Capt. Scott Murray, will follow through on their pledge to hold another public forum later this spring.

At that forum, we also hope and expect some of the volume and venom can be stripped from the dialogue, and a meeting of the minds can be reached on mutually acceptable tweaks to how the sober house operates (no, not drug-sniffing dogs, as one resident proposed).

In its worst form, that hysteria had allowed some misinformation to take root, transforming the nature of a 9-1-1 call from the sober house into something it was not. 

To be fair to residents living near the sober house, this is a significant change to their neighborhood. While under no obligation to do so legally, Vanderburgh House may have been well served to conduct more proactive outreach before opening its doors, which might have spared it a spectacle that brought Boston television news cameras to town.

If the neighbors feel strongly enough that others should be spared the surprise of waking up next door to a sober house, they may have the option of sponsoring a 2024 Town Meeting warrant article to propose amending the town’s zoning bylaws to require future sober houses to obtain special permits before opening. If legally permissible, such a change would have the effect of forcing the public airing of a sober house’s arrival that the Humphrey Street neighbors feel they were denied.

Given what we have learned about how the sober house operates, particularly its screening process, we do not think such an amendment is necessary, but it could be a public discussion worth having. In any event, the existing sober house would almost certainly be grandfathered from having to meet any new town requirement.

While the sober house public forum may have generated a bit of negative attention momentarily, some good has come from it, too, which should prove to be more enduring.

We were introduced to a courageous former Marblehead resident, Laura McKowen, the founder of a global sobriety support community. McKowen took to these pages to remind us, “Addiction is everywhere in Marblehead already.”

“Our restaurants, homes, school pick-up lines, yacht clubs, backyard parties and town gatherings are filled with people struggling with addiction, but we don’t see it,” she wrote. “It’s disguised behind privilege, productivity and wealth.”

We were also reminded that, by and large, Marblehead is a compassionate community. McKowen’s column generated heartening letters to the editor and a steady stream of supportive comments on social media.

By the end, letter writer Cynthia Nagrath’s suggestion — “let’s come together as a community to support and uplift those in recovery, and work towards a future where addiction and alcoholism are no longer stigmatized or ignored” — seemed to be where the topic of the sober house was trending. For that, we are grateful.

This will, no doubt, not be the last situation that will roil our community. Given that, there are lessons from the sober house experience that we would do well to heed. Listen with an open mind to experts and those with firsthand experience. Take a deep breath. A little bit of empathy goes a long way.

Together, we can work through these challenges — one day at a time.

The Current Editorial Board
info@marbleheadnews.org | + posts

The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

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