Now that COVID-related emergency legislation is winding down, the Legislature is returning to bills that had been on the back burner. As housing is within the domain of my committee work, one issue I was working on is how to increase the number of recovery beds available to those grappling with substance use disorders.
Recovery residences are a key component of treatment alternatives. A 2019 report by Downstreet Housing identified there were only 212 recovery beds statewide, with the majority in Chittenden County and Brattleboro.
However, 73% of the existing beds are for men, despite the fact that 42% of those receiving treatment are women, and there is only one recovery residence for women with children. The study identified the need for more than 1,000 additional beds to help communities counter the ever-increasing devastation from addiction.
Representative Jean O’Sullivan has been working on this issue for years, and I co-sponsored H.783 with her, a bill whose intention is to improve the quality and increase the number of recovery beds throughout the state. Recovery homes provide a shared living residence supporting persons recovering from a substance use disorder that provides peer support, prohibits use of alcohol and illegal drugs, and assists residents in accessing support services including medication-assisted treatment.
The bill does not regulate all recovery residences in Vermont but proposes for homes meeting national standards certified by the Vermont Alliance for Recovery Residences to be exempt from certain landlord and tenant relationships outlined in the bill. The certification process provides a toolkit with statewide definitions, detailed expectations and operational policies. This is needed to improve the quality of recovery homes across the state as there are no industry standards.
The bill also addresses zoning for these homes as single-family residential use. This clarity is essential for both operators and communities, eliminating barriers and discrepancies from town to town, thus allowing homes to be in proximity to transportation, employment and necessary support services. Vermont did this more than 30 years ago for independent living group homes for people with disabilities.
Guidelines and policies for temporary and permanent removal is also addressed to allow a fair due process for both tenants and landlords, balancing individual and community rights.
Currently, no standards exist in this arena as well. Under the bill, residents are provided protections.
This is a very delicate balance as relapses are often part of the recovery process, so safeguards were put into the bill to ensure that people who need to be removed are helped with re-housing and harm reduction strategies consistent with their recovery plans. And importantly, a recovery residence may not remove a resident solely on the use of medication-assisted treatment.
Certified recovery residences will benefit from being in this network, including technical support and guidance on best practices. The Vermont Community Foundation announced the formation of the Jenna Fund to be administered by Vermont Association for Recovery Residences and only be available to certified residences in the state. These funds provide initial deposits and first month’s rent for individuals who have financial need.
Advocates, recovery residence operators, state administrators from departments of health, housing, and corrections, as well as people grappling with substance use disorders helped develop the bill. Responding to input, seven iterations of the bill evolved and then, in committee, two more friendly amendments were integrated.
The bill is waiting to come before the full House and may not make it through the process this summer. While working on the issue, I learned recovery homes save lives, and are essential to helping people overcome substance use disorders. Site visits to South Burlington’s exemplary Suburban Square women’s home and Jenna’s Promise being developed in Johnson affirmed the benefits recovery residences provide. Hopefully, the time will be right to act upon this bill.