Sober houses operate with no oversight by Washington County

By Katherine Driessen and Emily E. Smith, The Oregonian, May 23, 2013

Fairhaven sober house - mapA sober house for recovering addicts operated for a year across from Reedville Elementary unbeknownst to the Hillsboro School District, the sheriff’s office and the probation department in part because there is no formal county oversight as to where such houses are located.

Authorities discovered the house when an intoxicated man walked into the school on May 14. The man told Washington County sheriff’s deputies he lived at the Aloha halfway house on Southwest Johnson Street. Deputies could not determine if the man was a resident of the home, but they concluded no crime had been committed and did not arrest him.

The house raised questions for the sheriff’s office. Deputies found three sex offenders were living at the facility, operated by Fairhaven Recovery Homes. Two of those offenders were on probation with conditions prohibiting them from being near children. All three had prior convictions for sex offenses against children.

It’s a gap opened in large part by definition: The county’s community development code applies only to houses that offer 24-hour supervision, treatment plans and are licensed or certified by the state, called halfway houses. But few, if any, sober or recovery houses in the county meet all those terms so do not need county staff approval.

While the county lacks jurisdiction over the home’s location, the probation department, for its part, does not approve offenders’ housing prior to their move.

Fairhaven executive director John Liebertz declined to comment and did not respond to questions regarding the screening of housing applicants. Bob Severe, who supervises the probation department’s sex offender team, said the Washington County probation and parole office, in most cases, makes homes visits only after offenders have found housing.

“For the most part, people who are released just have to find their own housing,” he said. “There are a variety of ways they could get to a house like this.”

Offenders might find housing through community agencies, treatment providers or word-of-mouth referrals, Severe said. Once they secure housing, he said, offenders report the information to their probation officers, who later follow up with a home visit.

The two men under supervision moved to the home near Reedville Elementary toward the end of April, Severe said. Probation officers had not yet visited to determine whether their housing was suitable. After learning the offenders were living near the school, probation officers requested that the men move.

Probation officers who supervise offenders living in sober and halfway houses throughout county have contact with some of the homes’ private owners, Severe said, but they have no authority over them. Severe said he had a positive impression of Fairhaven.

“I remember going out and visiting one of their houses,” he said. “I’ve always felt like they were stand-up people.”

Fairhaven and similar housing organizations, Severe said, are an important part of offenders’ success in the community.

“Obviously they provide a vital function for people trying to maintain their sobriety,” he said.

Washington County Commissioner Dick Schouten, who represents the Aloha-Reedville area, said after the Reedville Elementary incident there should be a “tightening up” of how people being released from custody find housing. But Schouten said he doesn’t think the county needs more land-use oversight when it comes to the housing locations.

Instead, Schouten said he would like community corrections staff to make referrals not only to providers but also to specific locations.

“It’s something as simple as taking a look at a Google map so we can see where they are being sent,” Schouten said.

There are 38 sober houses in the county with about 350 beds total, according to Washington County spokeswoman Julie McCloud. Those sites house a mix of people, some struggling with addiction in the community and others released from custody.

The county relies on housing organizations to self-police when it comes to finding a neighborhood that is a good fit and who can reside there, Community Corrections Director Reed Ritchey said.

“I really see these houses as a valuable community resource,” Ritchey said. “They do important work.”

A vetting process that the county does before extending a contract deals with the nonprofit’s prior experience and system organization, but it does not tackle the location of housing, Ritchey said.

“It’s unusual to be right across the street from a school, frankly,” Ritchey said. “Generally speaking, (the organizations) realize what can be an issue.”

During the past five years, the county has spent about $160,000 annually on contracts with six housing organizations that offer sober housing, including Fairhaven. The county has spent about $15,000 annually on a 2010 contract with Fairhaven, which has multiple houses in Washington County, Ritchey said.

Through its contracts, the county offers vouchers to help people find immediate housing, covering the first month’s rent for some residents. But as for where those residents are placed, that’s up to the parole officers and the nonprofits, Ritchey said.

The Corrections Department is asking the county to waive the request-for-proposal process for a five-year, $1 million allotment for more housing vouchers. The Board of Commissioners will decide whether to approve to the waiver as a consent agenda item next Tuesday.