For years

The rocky road of regulating recovery houses

Surrey has worked to keep sketchy drug and alcohol recovery homes from operating in the city with limited success.

In the mid-1990s, the tongue-in-cheek refrain from experts in the addictions field was that you get sick from drugs and booze in Vancouver, but you recover in Surrey.

Surrey took no comfort in that fact.

At the time, Surrey was inundated with unregulated drug and alcohol recovery homes – estimates ran at about 100.

Many of them were sketchy outfits that “racked and stacked” clients (packing several to a room), offered little or no recovery program, didn’t provide food, and often booted them out early while still keeping the full month’s rent.

Newly elected city councillor, Dianne Watts, attempted to tackle the issue head on.

A municipal bylaw was created which had several conditions firmly bolted to the B.C. Community Care Facilities Act (CCFA).

Municipalities have no authority to dictate how enterprises operate, but the province does. Provincial buy-in to a crackdown on recovery homes was critical.

In 2001, however, the B.C. Liberals conducted a core services review, and the CCFA was scrapped.

Surrey’s promising new bylaw was effectively neutered and it was once again a free-for-all in Surrey’s substance abuse recovery field.

Some homes were taking clients’ welfare checks (about $500 a month) and packing numerous individuals to a home – sometimes as many as 15 to 20.

That meant home operators could gross $10,000 a month.

Surrey later adjusted its approach by requiring a home with more than six people in it to undergo rezoning applications. No more than 10 would be allowed in any one residential structure.

Needless to say, not many recovery homes lined up for public scrutiny, where they would surely fail to get public approval.

The houses remained virtually under the radar.

In 2012, Victoria devised another approach by requiring operators of drug and alcohol recovery homes to register with the province. Registration required following standards set out in the Mental Health and Substance Use handbook.

Surrey’s bylaw manager Jas Rehal told The Leader there are now 40 provincially regulated recovery homes in the city.

There are another 50 to 70 unregistered homes the city is aware of, but they are run well and not a cause for concern.

Another 30 or so are operating in a way that causes Surrey great concern – drug dealing, stacking clients, no counselling program – and the bylaw department looks to shut them down as quickly as possible.

The problem is, once they’re closed, they pop up somewhere else, Rehal said.

No formal training or credentials are required by would-be operators. All that’s needed is a willing landlord.

Rehal’s numbers means between 120 and 140 recovery homes are up and running in Surrey, a sizable jump from the number 20 years ago.

On Monday (May 25), Surrey council received a report from staff  outlining the approach the city is taking to better control the types of services being offered by recovery homes.

The report came on the heels of Surrey’s participation in B.C.’s new  “Community Action Initiative” (CAI) – http://www.communityactioninitiative.ca – set up to help communities deal with mental health and substance abuse problems.

Improperly regulated recovery homes have been identified by the province as something to address, and Surrey and Prince George have been identified as pilot cities to test potential new regulations.

The province has just completed CAI community consultations which identified some commonalities among recovery homes.

One is that abuses occur whether a home is registered with the province or not.

The report also indicates that clients and families are unaware about what a recovery house should offer.

Most importantly, the Surrey staff report says, the consultations indicate policy changes are necessary to bring about accountability.

Recovery homes that are placed within a multi-service agency, such as Phoenix Society’s centre near Surrey Memorial Hospital, benefit from an existing administrative infrastructure.

Surrey wants the province to develop a new framework for managing standalone drug and alcohol recovery homes.

The city believes they should be run by B.C. Housing because of the agency’s experience in emergency housing. Funding, the city proposes, should be calculated on a per-bed basis, rather than per diem. That would put an end to the big money being made by some operators who are stuffing many clients into one home.

The city also recommends mandatory staff training, a central registry, tracking of outcomes, province-wide distribution of homes, and consideration of an amendment to the Fire Services Act.

The safety in recovery homes has been cause for warnings from the B.C. Coroner’s Service on several occasions, the staff report to council states.

Jean LaMontagne, Surrey’s general manager of planning and development, said the CAI gave the city a great opportunity to provide input into the revision of provincial regulations.

If and when then those regulations are implemented is a matter of provincial control.

Meantime, LaMontagne said, Surrey will continue to do what it can through its existing zoning process.

Read a recovery home success story: From death’s edge to new hope.