Connecticut's prison population hit an all-time high this year, but that wasn't the worst news. The real problem is who is in jail. Nearly 4,000 inmates have a diagnosis of mental illness. Nearly 3,000 are in prison for sale of possession of illegal drugs, and most of them struggle with addiction.
Many of these people aren't being well served by sitting in prison. Advocates for the mentally ill say many come out of prison in worse shape than when they went in. UConn law professor Robert Whitman knows there's a better and much less expensive way to treat many of the people struggling with mental health and addiction issues.
Whitman is a driving force behind a form of community housing called by the acronym PATH, for People Advocating Therapeutic Homes. There are an estimated 150 "recovery houses" or "sober houses" in Connecticut, about a third of which follow the PATH model.
One of PATH's advantages is that it is a small business for the owner. "Pure capitalism," Whitman said. The houses don't need public funds (though some owners can apply for small state grants).
Typically an owner, often a longtime recovering addict, buys one or more homes, directs the operation and serves as a mentor to the resident. He or she rents rooms to three to 20 residents, who agree to stay clean, get a job, pay rent (typically $125 a week for everything but food) attend counseling or treatment meetings and otherwise be good citizens. If they break the rules, they are asked to leave. PATH isn't for everyone.
Whitman, inspired by the success of a family member in such a program, began gathering advocates, lawyers and law students and others a decade ago to promote this type of housing. He and Attorney Teresa "Terri" O'Connell have written a book about owning and operating PATH-type housing, and the organization is building a Web-based directory of therapeutic housing for people with mental health and addiction issues. Through Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, an advocacy group, O'Connell conducts training sessions for prospective owners of PATH houses several times a year with Cheryle Pacapelli, director of operations for CCAR and the owner of a recovery home. Training is important; some sober houses have failed, to the detriment of the movement.
It's also good to have lawyers involved in the effort, because the houses sometimes draw legal challenges.
One was presented to Bobby Hargrove by the town of North Haven in 1999. Hargrove had been addicted to alcohol and heroin, but had gotten clean in the mid-1990s. After managing a sober house, he bought a small former convalescent home in North Haven.
He brought 14 people to the facility, and the town promptly found him in violation of local zoning ordinances. Zoning authorities believe the world will end if unrelated people live in the same house, a bias I've never understood. But after losing in state court, Hargrove got a good lawyer and won in federal court. Now Hargrove owns four homes, two each in North Haven and New Haven, with a total of 51 beds.
I went through the first North Haven home Wednesday with Hargrove's manager, Jay Greenblatt. Hargrove was in Florida playing golf, a much healthier addiction. The residence is in a semi-rural part of town, a mix of farms and suburban homes. The one-story cinder-block building was freshly painted and well-kept. One resident was heading off to work as I arrived; others were working or sleeping after night shifts.
Each has a bedroom. Each has a full-sized refrigerator, and they share the kitchen. They go to treatment meetings, and all of Hargrove's residents meet on Thursdays. The rec room in the basement smelled faintly of cigarette smoke. "Smoking is the last thing they give up," Greenblatt said.
Someone who makes it at a PATH house might move on to a resident-run model such as an Oxford House. Or go home.
As Whitman and many other advocates have told me, people in recovery need a safe, therapeutic, supportive environment. Many people do recover. If you could provide such a situation at minimal government expense, by making it someone's business, isn't that a good thing? Wouldn't communities be OK with houses that insist its residents hold jobs and stay clean? Or do we want to keep mentally ill and addicted people in prison, at a cost of more than $31,000 a year per person?
I took Bob Whitman's Trusts and Estates class in the 1970s, and, now as then, admire both his passion and his intelligence. He's got a better way to do this. Listen to him.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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