The questions about "safe and sober" housing in Idaho are simple: Clean? Sober? Safe?
The answers don't come easily—particularly from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
"We're going to direct you elsewhere," an IDHW spokesperson said in response to a basic inquiry. "You're going to need to talk to BPA Health."
Boise-based BPA Health, formerly known as Business Psychology Associates, is a for-profit behavioral health and managed services company. It is sanctioned by the state of Idaho—and paid for with tax dollars—to oversee Gem State resources for mental health and substance abuse services. Additionally, BPA makes it possible for providers to bill the state of Idaho for services but not for helping men and women struggling with recovery transition to a healthier life.
"We oversee the credentialing and oversight of any safe and sober living facility that would fall into our network," said Janice Fulkerson, who joined the BPA leadership team earlier this year. "Safe and sober housing might serve a variety of clients. Some may be able to pay on their own, but a number of them may have no insurance and would need funding through a state source. And, yes, there could be some folks released from prison and would come to safe and sober houses through the Idaho Department of Correction."
Two more questions quickly emerge: How many facilities are there in Idaho that promise safe and sober living? Is it a successful model to mix probationers/parolees into safe and sober housing?
The answer to No. 1 is short but perplexing. Nobody knows.
There are lists on the IDHW website, indexing dozens of sober, transitional or halfway houses in multiple communities, most of them in the Treasure Valley. Those lists are only a fraction of the houses, condos or apartments—many of them unlicensed—that provide shelter and may or may not provide support or supervision. The state of Idaho doesn't require licensing and, as Boise Weekly has chronicled in previous reports, such houses may advertise or promise to provide shelter for those in recovery; even local municipalities don't know who is operating the facilities in their city limits.
"Look, it's a private residence, and I'm renting rooms," one such operator told BW in 2010. "There's no code or law—federal, state or city—overseeing my homes."
The answer to No. 2 depends on who is asked. The head of one of Idaho's biggest sober living operations (he wouldn't tell us exactly how many locations) defended the concept of his safe and sober houses allowing probationers and parolees.
"We don't discriminate against anybody for any reason," said Marc Archambeau, CEO of Blackhorse Construction, the parent company of Rising Sun Sober Living, which has at least 11 safe and sober houses in Boise.
"We're here if they need a safe place to live while they go through recovery. We don't do treatment, but we're a safe place to live," he said.
Brandt Gibson will soon open River Sober Living, a new safe and sober house in Boise. He said discrimination has nothing to do with recovery, and he has seen too many instances of safe and sober houses becoming halfway houses for probationers and parolees.
"It's interesting to note that, outside of Idaho, clean and sober homes traditionally don't house parolees, but when I moved back to Idaho and applied to live in a safe and sober house, they gave me an address of a three-bedroom apartment where six guys were living. Every other person was on parole," said Gibson. "There were no services. No feeling of peer support or camaraderie. No on-site manager or even an assistant manager. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who had never been incarcerated before. I can see how they could have felt threatened. Basically, the structure of sober living houses here in Idaho makes them more like halfway houses."
Gibson's story is as harrowing as it is hopeful. He started drinking at age 16 and said he "laid a path of wreckage" for the next 10 years. He was arrested more than once for DUI, lost his driver's license on multiple occasions and, in 2009, spent six months in the Los Angeles County Jail. Alcoholism triggered seizures, and Gibson was hospitalized and then homeless. He said he contemplated suicide. Then, more than a year ago, while living in Boise and barely hanging on to a job as a waiter, Gibson had an epiphany.
"I had been in that situation too many times: The same type of apartments or houses. By then, I had been in 10 or 15 different places that called themselves clean and sober," he said. "There was no management, just somebody who would come by for about five minutes, take your money and leave.
"The business model was a place that accepted state funding for individuals on parole," Gibson added. "If they happened to run into somebody not on parole with no place to go, they housed them, too. That was the basic environment."
So Gibson reached out to a colleague—someone he would only identify as a "silent partner"—to purchase a large West Boise home not far from Franklin and Maple Grove roads.
Gibson began furnishing the location in preparation for the Monday, May 1 opening of what he hopes will be the first in a series of homes, all under the umbrella of River Sober Living.
"The first thing we have to do is break the perception that many Idahoans have of such facilities," he said. "Unfortunately, in Idaho, a clean and sober house being confused for some kind of halfway house isn't a misconception. It's reality. So, the first thing we have to do is talk about what we're doing different. For one, we'll have a live-in house manager holding residents accountable to a zero-tolerance policy. No. 2, we'll concentrate on life skills, like resume building and job interviewing. Residents will be accountable to their AA, NA or recovery programs. And, perhaps most importantly, we'll be accountable to our neighbors, making the house look great."
The first River Sober Living house is considerable in size—its six bedrooms will house five individuals in addition to the on-site manager—and it sits in a typical Boise cul-de-sac, which is home to about a dozen families.
"It's really important that I meet our neighbors face to face and tell our story," said Gibson. "They need to know who we are and who we aren't."
Fulkerson said that's critical.
"If safe and sober housing is going to succeed, they have to be a good neighbor," she said. "Transition into society and it's good for the community, but it's ultimately important that the house works extra hard to respect the neighbors and the neighborhood housing association."
Archambeau was reluctant to share too much about Rising Sun's operations, repeatedly pointing to the company's website.
"As far as anything else, we prefer to be under the radar. We want to avoid controversy of any kind," he said.
Archambeau knows, however, his industry is as busy as ever.
"The need is as great as it has ever been, unfortunately," he added.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, addiction "continues to impact every segment of American society." Nearly 24 million, or one in every 10 Americans over the age of 12, are addicted to alcohol or drugs. That's roughly the population of Texas.
"Idaho's biggest substance abuse problem is addiction to alcohol. There are approximately as many alcohol-dependent people in Idaho as all other addictive substances combined," according to the website for Boise-based NorthPoint Recovery counseling center,
"I think life's complications are happening faster than ever before, certainly faster than what we're prepared for," said Gibson. "It's becoming more widespread."
Gibson walked around the West Boise home, giving one more inspection before it official becomes River Sober Living.
"Honestly, we can't open soon enough," he said.