How unregulated recovery homes are saving some addicts while endangering others

Loris “Recovery Ranch” place of refuge for recovering addicts

Thirty recovering addicts live in tents and trailers around a farm in Loris that the residents have dubbed the "Recovery Ranch." Struggling with sobriety, the residents contribute by doing chores and caring for the animals as therapy.
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Thirty recovering addicts live in tents and trailers around a farm in Loris that the residents have dubbed the "Recovery Ranch." Struggling with sobriety, the residents contribute by doing chores and caring for the animals as therapy.

Ian Malcolm knows he’d be dead if he hadn’t moved from Randolph County, North Carolina, to a ranch in Loris.

On this sunny, late-summer day, his hard work is evident from the beads of sweat dripping through his closely shaven head. His tasks on the farm vary from day to day. Some days he waters the plants, others he’ll help paint the shed, and you’ll often find him grooming a dark brown mare named Wendy.

But his most important task — and the reason he moved to this ranch about nine months ago — is the same every day: stay sober.

Malcolm is a resident of a local recovery residence — a growing, unregulated housing industry that captures the vastly different approaches many are taking to try to address the opioid crisis.

Because the residences are unregulated and largely unfunded by the government, state officials don’t know how many or where most of these homes are located, but the opioid crisis and subsequent need for stable housing for those trying to stay sober has fueled their rapid growth in recent years.

A Sun News investigation found at least 28 such residences, often called sober or transitional living homes, housing up to 212 recovering addicts in Horry County with more being planned, and at least 25 of those residences have opened within the last five years.

State officials have been discussing ways to stymie rapidly increasing drug overdose death totals for years, but only now are they starting to ask questions about where many are living as they try to overcome their addictions.

‘We welcome accountability’

Shelley Waldroup, founder of Greater Love Home — which operates four women’s recovery homes in Horry County — said she believes some regulations are necessary because, as it stands, anyone can open a recovery house and there’s great potential for harm to an already vulnerable population.

The Grand Strand’s chapter of Faces and Voices of Recovery recently took over a men’s recovery house in Myrtle Beach after one of the home’s residents came to them asking for help.

Tim Carter, now manager of the home, was seeing his fellow residents drink and do drugs with little-to-no supervision by the home’s operator, he told The Sun News.

Once he got access to house records, he found the operator hadn’t paid the landlord in several months, and they were on the brink of eviction.

Carter is wealthy, he said, from owning a heating and air company in North Carolina, so he knows he would’ve landed on his feet, possibly in another recovery home. He wasn’t so sure about his 13 roommates.

The Desert Storm veteran, who still looks the part wearing his camo hat and biker vest, had to fight back tears explaining how he refused to let them surrender.

Tim Carter manages the FAVOR home for recovering addicts in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Aug 20, 2018. David Weissman dweissman@thesunnews.com

The National Alliance for Recovery Residences is attempting to self-regulate the industry by establishing quality standards and offering a voluntary certification process to lend credibility to the homes operating transparently.

Mike Todd, a recovery home operator in Greenville, started the organization’s South Carolina chapter earlier this year and said he wants to focus on finding houses with proper supervision, standards, ethics, rules and residents’ rights.

A recovered addict himself — as the majority of recovery home operators are — Todd said he got clean decades ago in a Myrtle Beach condo filled with others seeking recovery, and he wants to ensure other addicts have somewhere to go when they’re ready to get clean.

“We welcome accountability because we want it to be viable,” he said.

Six months in, however, Todd’s chapter is stuck in neutral with just a handful of certified homes near Greenville and no funding to train certifiers in other parts of the state.

He’s spoken with state officials about receiving some funding — he believes $25,000 should be enough to start making headway — but he said he hasn’t gotten much response.

Rep. Russell Fry, R-Myrtle Beach, said the rapid growth of recovery houses has piqued his interest, and he’s interested in learning more about how other states have addressed them.

Sara Goldsby, director of the state’s Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, recently suggested to legislators on the House Opioid Abuse Prevention Study Committee, which Fry co-chairs, that recovery residences could be a potential area of interest for future study as the committee continues implementing policies.

“We have a hard time knowing the quality of each home to refer people to safe, appropriate homes,” Goldsby told The Sun News.

Finding safe housing is among the many challenges facing those pursuing recovery. Florida has seen widespread fraud and predatory behaviors from many of its recovery home operators, Goldsby said.

‘The Florida Shuffle’

Dave Aronberg, state attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida, has been at the forefront of addressing fraud in sober homes.

Residents of certain homes, which he calls flop houses, in Palm Beach were being forced to engage in prostitution and theft and kept on drugs, while the operators siphoned off money from their insurance carriers, Aronberg said.

The issues stemmed from relationships formed between the sober home operators and drug treatment centers, he explained, as the centers provided illegal kickbacks to operators in exchange for referrals.

Fueled by the opioid epidemic, recovery residences are rapidly opening in the Myrtle Beach area. Learn about the unregulated industry and how some have taken advantage of addicts’ need for stable housing.

That cycle, which Aronberg refers to as the “Florida Shuffle,” continued until the resident left the home “in an ambulance or a body bag,” he said.

Aronberg was authorized to begin a task force in 2016, he said, and they’ve since arrested 55 people associated with sober homes for felonies, including patient brokering and insurance fraud.

Those treatment center-sober home relationships also have been severed by a state law requiring any referral to or from a sober home to be one certified through Florida’s NARR chapter, which the state now helps fund.

Efforts by Aronberg and other state and local law enforcement officials have helped lead to a 40 percent decrease in opioid-involved overdose deaths through September in Palm Beach County, he said.

As Florida has started cracking down, though, Aronberg noted that predatory sober home operators are simply moving to other states and rebooting their illegal ventures. He and other members of his task force have met with officials from as far away as California to warn them.

Aronberg suggested South Carolina officials form a similar task force, but he warned that they may to run into trouble if they try to impose regulations due to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act protections.

“It’s made it harder for local government and law enforcement to provide proper guidelines and oversight even when the guidelines are for the protection of sober home residents,” he said, noting that he’s spoken to members of Congress about his frustration.

Fry said he’s open to regulating and funding the industry as long as he’s assured taxpayer money is spent wisely and effectively.

The federal government already has started offering some funds for recovery residences.

Joey Smoak, executive director of the Eastern Carolina Homelessness Organization, said his organization recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to open three sober living homes in the Myrtle Beach area.

Smoak, who also serves as a board member for Greater Love Home, explained that the majority of homelessness is linked to a serious mental illness, substance abuse or both.

With 1,100 people in the 12 counties ECHO serves still waiting to be housed, Smoak’s organization could open another 50 houses in the area exactly like the three being supported by the HUD grant and it still wouldn’t be enough.

‘Inmates running the asylum’

As it stands, the largest collection of recovery home operators in Horry County are the recovering addicts themselves, through a nationwide organization called Oxford House.

Established in 1975 in Maryland, Oxford House operates under the premise that “inmates running the asylum” is the best way forward for many addicts in recovery.

Though the national organization offers its houses some support, the responsibilities of paying rent, maintaining order and holding each other accountable falls entirely on the residents.

Established in 1975 in Maryland, Oxford House operates under the premise that “inmates running the asylum” is the best way forward for many addicts in recovery.

Eight men’s and four women’s houses are operating in different parts of the county, including Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and Conway.

Sitting around the dining room table for their weekly meeting, five residents of a men’s house in Surfside Beach take turns relaying information based on their role within the home.

The secretary calls the meeting to order and goes over minutes from the previous meeting, detailing the exact times each motion passed. The treasurer explains how much each person owes while the comptroller reminds everyone when rent is due.

Rob Passaretti, wearing a grey Oxford House tank top, waits for the formal portion of the meeting to end before asking each of his housemates how their week has been.

After living in the house for six months, Passaretti is getting ready to leave to live on his own, a plan that excites him while also, admittedly, makes him a little nervous.

He’s been clean for two years, since right about the time his daughter, who is currently visiting him, was born.

“I was just tired of being that scumbag that no one wanted to have over,” Passaretti said while his daughter crawled onto his back.

He plans to continue helping the Oxford House organization after he moves because he believes recovery houses are a necessary tool to have available for addicts trying to remain sober.

A place for her daughter to get clean

While Oxford House is the largest local presence, other organizations have opened recovery residences, each filling a perceived need with its own methods for keeping its residents clean.

Shelley Waldroup started Greater Love Home five years ago because there were no women’s recovery houses in the area, and she wanted to give her daughter a place to break her heroin addiction.

Shelley Waldroup, founder of Greater Love Homes, established the recovery home to try to save her daughter from addiction but ended up helping dozens of other women through their recovery.

It didn’t work out as planned, but she continued operating anyway.

“I always believed that if I kept doing this and helping someone else’s daughter, someone would help mine,” Waldroup said, unable to fight back tears.

“And they did,” she continues after a long pause, explaining that her daughter, Merissa Walden, is now two years clean after she completed a recovery program in Sumter. Merissa now helps her operate the homes.

Greater Love Home charges residents $130 per week and requires them to get jobs, go to counseling and follow a lengthy set of rules, ranging from keeping their bedroom tidy to no gossiping.

Ellie Pcolar, a resident of one of Waldroup’s Conway homes, said she hated all the rules and oversight when she first moved in, but she has come to appreciate them because they hold her accountable.

Living with other women was initially a challenge, she added, as “addicts generally get along with men better because they get you what they need.”

Pcolar, 27, had been addicted to various drugs for about 12 years, she said, and was recently homeless for eight months, “hopping between crack houses, doing things I never thought I’d do.”

Ellie Pcolar says that the structure of Greater Love Homes, "keep me straight, they hold me accountable." Pcolar said she was homeless for 8 months and had hit "rock bottom" before she was accepted into the women's home.

Every resident in these homes have a “rock bottom” moment they say led them to seek recovery, and she recalled hers as splitting a pill pressed with heroin and fentanyl with the father of her son. After he ingested the pill, he passed out, and Pcolar called an ambulance.

“It was really scary, but I guess not scary enough,” she said, recounting her decision to snort the other half of the pill in the hospital bathroom. “I’m told they had to shoot me with Narcan five times, and I woke up in my bed.”

Now about five months sober, Pcolar said she has numerous goals: regain custody of her 2-year-old son, get her driver’s license, get a business degree and “just be happy.”

“I’m working toward it, but it’s extremely slow,” she said. “I want instant gratification. I just have to understand it’s not going to happen this year, or maybe even next year.”

The Recovery Ranch

If Greater Love Home is considered the strictest residence being offered for local addicts seeking recovery, Harriet’s House is on the other end of the spectrum.

Leah Collins, 30-days sober, writes out a “gratitude list” as part of her therapy at the ‘Recovery Ranch’. Aug 24, 2018. Jason Lee jlee@thesunnews.com

Nicknamed the “Recovery Ranch,” the 39 acres of unincorporated county land in Loris is home to 10 horses, six goats, 30 chickens, a sheep and 30 recovering addicts.

Rich Reynolds, who runs the ranch with his wife, Christa, said they charge $100 admission and $125 per week, but less than half of the residents can pay, and they don’t require them to find jobs.

Instead, each resident helps the Reynolds run the ranch, assigned an animal to care for or a daily chore, such as watering the plants.

Rich and Christa Reynolds live on the ranch in a house with their daughters while the recovering addicts live out of campers and tents, which sit near cages filled with roosters and ducks.

This specific living arrangement isn’t permanent.

Horry County spokeswoman Kelly Moore said the property owners have been notified of a zoning violation due to the campers, but added their staff is working with the couple to come to a solution.

Rich Reynolds said the plan is to build several cabins where the recovering addicts can live, but they need donations to get started.

“We’re givers, so it’s really hard to ask,” he said.

Reynolds knows many in the local recovery community speak negatively about the Recovery Ranch — some have accused them of using the addicts for labor on their farm — but he doesn’t know why since he and his wife are just trying to help fulfill a need.

To be sure, many living there would otherwise be homeless, or worse.

Ian Malcolm said he’s been using various drugs since he was 14. He tried to get clean several times, but he said he couldn’t relate to the assigned drug counselors that hadn’t used a drug in their lives.

Ian Malcolm stokes a fire as he does chores around the Recovery Ranch and says that finding a purpose and helping others is the reason he stays sober. Aug 23, 2018. Jason Lee jlee@thesunnews.com

Twenty-two of his friends have died from drug overdoses, he said, but none of those deaths made him consider a change.

“At that point, I didn’t give a shit if I lived or died,” Malcolm said, emphasizing a sentiment many addicts will express, noting that they don’t feel they’re worthy of life.

The ranch now gives Malcolm purpose, and the trust Rich and Christa Reynolds put in him to help other residents stay clean is the reason he’s still living, he said.

Inspiring journeys aren’t difficult to find in recovery houses, but failures are just as common with high resident turnover.

Sowing seeds

While speaking with The Sun News, Carter showed off the Spider man bicycle sitting in one of his residents’ rooms.

“He just bought that for his son,” Carter said proudly. “You know how much dope he could’ve bought for (what he spent on) that?”

Unfortunately, Carter kicked out that resident weeks later after catching him drinking — part of a zero-tolerance policy that most recovery residences share.

Waldroup said she recently had to kick out four women in one week due to failed drug tests.

“We gave them 30 to 45 minutes to pack their stuff up,” she said. “It was very discouraging.”

Waldroup said it took her some time to realize she can’t save every woman that comes to live in her recovery houses, but she’s learned that there’s hope even in a failure.

“Our job is to sow seeds,” she said, “and either they take root and they eventually recover, or they might not.”

David Weissman: @WeissmanMBO; 843-626-0305
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