Bible study and work without pay: the shadowy world of sober living homes
Kaitlyn, 32, applied for a spot at Hope Center Ministries near the end of 2021 because it seemed like her best option at the time. She had pleaded guilty in February to one count of criminal endangerment related to reckless driving and, after being released, violated her probation by reportedly failing to show up for check-ins and possessing drug paraphernalia.
Court records say she had told her probation officer she’d been using methamphetamine, even as she denied having a problem with drugs or alcohol. The women’s sober living home, her attorney advised, would help her get out of jail and give her a structured environment to recover from substance use.
“I didn’t really know a lot about it,” Kaitlyn, who uses a pseudonym to protect her privacy, said in a December interview. “He just told me that it was a treatment center and that I could benefit from it.”
The residence in Clancy is one of two Hope Center Ministries locations in Montana, and 36 nationwide. Though it’s described as a “drug addiction treatment center” on its Facebook page, the national admissions coordinator who testified at Kaitlyn’s November 2021 hearing in Boulder described it as a “long-term faith-based drug and alcohol recovery program”. On its national website, Hope Center Ministries says its purpose is to “lead addicts and their families to become fully devoted followers of Christ”.
According to a court transcript of the hearing, Kaitlyn’s public defense attorney told the district court judge Luke Berger that Hope Center Ministries’ 34-bed women’s home would provide her with some recovery support and help her maintain compliance with the terms of her probation.
The prosecutor on Kaitlyn’s case, the Jefferson county attorney Andrew Paul, argued for a different route, telling the judge he thought Kaitlyn needed clinical addiction treatment. He asked Hope Center’s then admissions coordinator, Ashley Drake, what kind of doctors the organization had on staff at the house where Kaitlyn would be going.
None, Drake replied. But she said the program would transport residents off-site for any necessary mental health care needs, medication or diagnoses.
“But you would agree with me that medical staff would be appropriate for somebody who is chemically addicted to substances, wouldn’t you?” Paul asked.
“Well, that would really depend upon which recovery approach that you choose,” Drake answered.
Hope Center Ministries, which opened its Clancy home in 2020, is one example among many of unlicensed and unregulated sober living residences operating in the country. The programs can offer housing and support to people coming out of jail, prison, or clinical treatment, but there is no state oversight of the services they provide.
Like most states, Montana doesn’t require sober living facilities to be licensed by the state in order to operate. Unless they provide clinical services that merit licensure as a residential treatment facility, sober living homes are also not required to employ licensed addiction counselors, social workers, or psychologists.
In the absence of dependable state oversight, industry groups have formed to set the bar for ethical standards. At a May presentation to Montana lawmakers and law enforcement officials, Dave Sheridan, executive director of the National Alliance of Recovery Residences (Narr), said such homes were generally designed to be distinct from clinical inpatient treatment and could include many different kinds of recovery programming and house governance. The organization’s certification standards, he said, focused on whether recovery residences operated with “integrity”.
“They uphold residents’ rights. They are creating a culture of empowerment,” Sheridan said. “We’re also working to ensure that residences are true home-like environments, that they’re not institutional and custodial, and that they provide recovery support.”
Montana addiction recovery experts have spent the last year developing a Narr affiliate to certify such homes, an effort that program staff say will pick up speed over the next year. But the state’s recovery industry has long operated without state regulation or independent accreditation, creating a constellation of providers with disparate standards.
Without oversight, reform advocates say, sober living residences can be unsafe, punitive, and financially exploitative for a vulnerable demographic often enmeshed in the criminal justice system.
The lack of regulation has also created a murky landscape for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys weighing clinical treatment for substance use disorders and non-clinical recovery programs. With caseloads full of people charged with drug-related offenses, law enforcement entities are often under pressure to find community placements and treatment facilities willing to take defendants.
“Any options are a good option when your only other option is jail,” said Claire Lettow, managing attorney for the office of public defender region that includes Montana’s Cascade county. Lettow said she and other attorneys in her office had had clients apply for beds at the Hope Center residences in part because of the shortage of inpatient treatment in their jurisdiction.
“There’s a handful of outpatient treatment providers here, but there is a lack of sober living and there is zero inpatient treatment,” she said.
‘It’s basically a kumbaya’
During Kaitlyn’s hearing, Drake, Hope Center Ministries’ admissions coordinator, explained that the year-long program included 24-hour supervision, Bible study and a mandatory “vocational training program” in which residents work at local job sites that hold staffing contracts with the ministry.
Eventually, she said, residents gained more privileges around the home to help them prepare to transition back into the community. Drake said the income residents generated through their work placement helped pay for the cost of their stay in the home, and also served as a main source of revenue for the program.
Sam Martin, Kaitlyn’s attorney, told Judge Berger that releasing Kaitlyn to the Clancy home would help keep her in compliance with the terms of her probation and give her the advantages of a supportive environment.
“Their program focuses on providing not only recovery aspects for addiction, but also life supports and general betterment of someone, if you will,” Martin said, adding that the program would help Kaitlyn “get out of the cycle that she is currently in”.
Paul, the county attorney, disagreed.
“Judge, to call this treatment is quite a stretch since they don’t have any sort of medical personnel that are available to assist somebody with their chemical addictions. It’s basically a kumbaya. ‘We’ll take care of you for money.’ And that’s all it is,” Paul said. “It is simply a place where Hope Ministries is making money.”
Berger eventually sided with Martin and agreed to refer Kaitlyn to the Clancy program as a condition of her continued probation. He stressed that he did not have the power to mandate her attendance at Bible study or to complete any religious service, but affirmed that she was agreeing to abide by the rules of the program to which she had applied.
As part of a longer explanation for his decision, Berger told Kaitlyn and the courtroom that he could not know what type of addiction program might work for each person who appears before him.
“I hate to say it this way, but you’re going to prove one of us wrong,” the judge told Kaitlyn. “If this is what works for you, then this works for you.”
Work without pay
When she showed up on the program’s doorstep, Kaitlyn thought the home was beautiful, with scenic views of the surrounding mountains. Soon she was following the same strict rules and routines as other residents, doing house chores, studying the Bible and completing related homework assignments. One activity required residents to apply scripture to their life experience and write a prayer. Kaitlyn said that early morning practice was her favorite activity.
“It helped me every day,” Kaitlyn said in a December interview. “It built my character. It gave me more confidence than I ever had before.”
Throughout her time at Hope Center Ministries, she said, she never worked with a licensed provider on an addiction recovery treatment plan. While the program let residents schedule “counseling” sessions with volunteers who visited the house, Kaitlyn said the people facilitating those sessions weren’t licensed professionals.
“I don’t know how they’re open if they don’t have any licensed people,” she said. “They were just people who had read the Bible.”
The director of Hope Center Ministries’ Clancy home, Carolyn Belling, declined requests for an interview about the program and did not respond to an emailed list of questions about the experiences shared by Kaitlyn and other residents. Multiple calls and emails to the national organization were not returned.
After about six weeks at the home, Kaitlyn began working roughly 40 hours a week at one of Hope Center Ministries’ contracted vocational training job sites, a burrito restaurant on the Carroll College campus in Helena operated by Sodexo, a national food service company. Sodexo did not respond to questions about its work agreement with the ministry.
Kaitlyn and two other former residents who worked at different Helena businesses said they did not receive paychecks from their job placements and weren’t scheduled to receive payment until the last eight weeks of the program – a phase, Drake had testified, during which residents learn financial responsibility and companies can “actually add them on” as employees.
“You weren’t paid,” Kaitlyn said of the ministry’s vocational training program. “It got sent to the Hope Center.”
Two other former residents said they spent their vocational training at Taco Bell locations in Helena, where they worked 40 hours per week. Joseph Sample, the owner-operator of Taco Bell locations in Helena and Butte, confirmed the businesses’ relationship with Hope Center Ministries to Montana Free Press (MTFP), saying they have employed 14 participants from the vocational program over the last 18 months. Several, Sample said, have stayed on as employees after leaving the Hope Center residences, and one is “on track” for a management position.
“We are proud to offer an opportunity for people in our community to have a second chance,” Sample said. Neither Sample nor a national Taco Bell spokesperson responded to additional questions about the company’s contracts with Hope Center Ministries.
Hope Center’s vocational training program serves two primary purposes, according to the organization’s national website. It’s meant to help residents bolster their work ethic during recovery while providing “additional income for the ministry”. In federal tax filings from 2019, the last year for which the Internal Revenue Service has a complete filing publicly available, Hope Center Ministries reported that “work therapy” accounted for more than $3.3m of the organization’s nearly $6m in total revenues that year.
The ministry also accepts donations, grants and gifts to support its mission, a category that totaled about $1.7m in 2019 revenue. Since the group opened its two Montana locations in 2020, one of its funders has been the Gianforte Family Foundation, the philanthropic trust of the Republican governor, Greg Gianforte; the state’s first lady, Susan Gianforte, and their four children. The foundation gifted Hope Center Ministries a cumulative $70,000 between 2020 and 2021, according to the trust’s recent non-profit tax documents.
Nationwide, hundreds of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs require residents to work without pay, either for the program itself or at contracted businesses, according to a 2020 investigation by the news outlet Reveal. At some high-profile sober living residences in other states, residents receive free clinical treatment, housing and food, but not monetary wages for their labor. Critics say that business model is ethically fraught for people with substance use disorders, and a potential violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
“The long and the short is there’s no exception in the Fair Labor Standards Act … that would cover this circumstance,” said D Michael Hancock, counsel at the national Cohen Milstein law firm and a former assistant administrator for the US Department of Labor’s wage and hour division. “If somebody works at Taco Bell, they’re entitled to be paid for their labor, period. I’m unaware of any Taco Bell exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
Hancock is among the attorneys litigating a series of cases against the Salvation Army on behalf of former residents of the organization’s adult rehabilitation programs, claiming the charity failed to treat residents as employees but required them to labor without sufficient pay. A similar lawsuit, certified as a class action this year, is proceeding against the Texas-based Cenikor Foundation for allegedly pocketing millions of dollars in wages earned by residents of its drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.
In addition to conflicting with federal law, Hancock said, the work-without-pay model takes advantage of people with few other options, many of whom lack stable housing and an income to afford sustained treatment.
“You have a desperate population who desperately need help. And so they’re willing to go into these programs, even if it means that they’re going to be exploited,” Hancock said.
Kaitlyn also said Hope Center staff had asked her to sign up for Snap, the public food assistance program, while she was at the residence. Two other former residents recounted the same experience, saying that, after their applications were approved, they turned their benefits cards over to Hope Center staff for purchasing household groceries. Food in the house was closely monitored, the former participants said, and the fridge and cupboards locked outside of designated meal times.
Jessie, a former resident who also asked for a pseudonym to protect her privacy, said residence staff did not return her food assistance card when she completed the program.
“They weren’t going to give it to me when I left,” Jessie said in a December interview. “They weren’t going to physically give me my card. They said that they would get rid of it. And I just didn’t trust that.”
After leaving the home, Jessie said, she called the state health department to report her benefit card lost or stolen, eventually telling a department employee that the facility was trying to keep it.
MTFP could not confirm whether the state department of public health and human services or the US Department of Agriculture, which oversee the food assistance program, have ever investigated Home Center Ministries’ use of Snap benefits based on Jessie’s complaint or any other reports. A health department spokesperson, Jon Ebelt, said non-profit group homes that are smaller than 16 beds can apply to use Snap benefits based on the eligibility of their residents, but that such facilities would obtain their own group home card. Ebelt would not confirm whether Hope Center Ministries was an approved group home for Snap use, saying “that information is confidential” based on federal regulation and state laws governing the administration of public benefits.
Saima Akhtar, a senior attorney at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, said that while federal regulations could allow for some congregate settings to use Snap benefits for residents, the benefits technically belong to the individual, not the facility.
“That is the language of the federal regulation. That is the federal standard,” Akhtar said. If a resident left the program, she continued, their benefits should transfer with them. “The benefits do not belong to the agency. The benefits should travel with the resident,” she said.
While the state health department does publish findings on individual reports of Snap abuse and fraud, the names of the parties are redacted and don’t indicate whether Hope Center Ministries has ever been the subject of an investigation. (In December, MTFP filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any documentation related to investigations of Hope Center Ministries by the US Department of Agriculture, but did not receive a response before publication.)
No mechanism for oversight
Reports of unethical business practices are not uncommon in the recovery industry, including work without pay, financially motivated patient referrals, and profiteering from gratuitous drug testing. Without oversight, the prevalence of exploitative and unethical conduct in Montana has been impossible to quantify. But local authorities and state lawmakers have recently begun pushing for more regulatory mechanisms to keep pace with the industry.
In March, the Billings city attorney’s office presented to lawmakers and law enforcement officials on the state criminal justice oversight committee about the minimal data and anecdotal reports it had amassed about approximately 35 sober living homes within Billings city limits.
The effort to collect information had begun, the assistant city attorney Karen Tracy said, in response to complaints lodged with the Billings city council about unchecked sober living home operators. Tracy told legislators and law enforcement stakeholders on the committee that the city attorney’s office had received reports of substandard housing conditions, residents having their possessions held as collateral if they did not pay rent, and an “extremely consistent theme” of evictions for minor violations.
“We have a very vulnerable population of residents who may not feel comfortable contacting law enforcement, who may not have the sophistication of availing themselves of the landlord-tenant courts,” Tracy said. “So we’ve got an issue here where we’re placing people into these homes or they are entering these homes voluntarily and they’re being taken advantage of by your shady or sketchier operators.”
After months of study, the committee drafted a new proposal for lawmakers to consider during the 2023 legislature that would bring a degree of oversight to the sober living industry, including a new requirement that addiction recovery residences register with the state health department. If adopted, the bill would also explicitly bar recovery residences from making false or misleading statements about their services under threat of prosecution for violating the Montana Consumer Protection Act.
In the coming months, more recovery home operators will also be able to voluntarily seek certification from the Recovery Residences Alliance of Montana (RRAM), the state affiliate created in 2021 that can accredit homes based on national best practices. As of December, RRAM had certified three organizations operating 10 homes in Billings, Missoula and Ronan.
Belling, Hope Center Ministries’ Clancy director, did not respond to questions about whether the residence planned to apply for certification through RRAM. If it does, its operations will be measured against the latest industry standards, which emphasize respect for residents’ rights and prioritizing their safety, health and wellbeing.
Nancy Marcus Newman, a Pennsylvania-based civil rights attorney who has represented recovery residences and lectured on unethical practices in the industry, said it was hard to see how a work therapy program using residents’ paychecks as revenue would align with best-practice standards for sober living homes.
“It’s a democratic, self-help recovery environment where residents are seeking their independence and learning about taking responsibility for themselves. And I think that getting a job and getting a paycheck and learning how to be financially independent is one of the goals,” Newman said. “I don’t see where taking that money from somebody is in any way contributing to their recovery.”
Whatever recovery industry reforms Montana may advance in the coming months, countless residents have already cycled through sober living residences operating without any standards for quality assurance, best practices or efficacy. While some residents might have left programs with months of sobriety and a vision for their future, others gained much less.
Kaitlyn was discharged from Hope Center Ministries in the spring of 2022 after being fired from her job at Sodexo and accused of violating the residence’s rules. She said she felt sabotaged and unsupported by the program, despite her efforts to graduate. One night, she said, Belling, the program director, drove her away from the residence, bought her a phone from Walmart, and dropped her off at God’s Love, a downtown Helena shelter. Kaitlyn said there was no invitation to come back.
“It felt really shitty, honestly,” Kaitlyn said. “She just said ‘good luck’.”
In the months after, court records show that Kaitlyn failed out of another placement at the YWCA in Helena after testing positive for meth and returned to jail to wait until her next hearing before Judge Berger.
As of December, about a year after she first arrived at the Hope Center, she was waiting to be transferred to Passages in Billings, a women’s correctional facility that offers inpatient drug and alcohol treatment. If given an opportunity to return to the Clancy home, Kaitlyn said, she probably wouldn’t take it.
“I don’t think I would go back, honestly,” she said.
This article was first published in Montana Free Press
Source of data and images: theguardian