A Boynton Beach resident shows the gun he says he must carry for protection after sober homes (including the one in the background) moved in on his street. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

Hundreds are moving into Palm Beach County’s suburbs, where residents say they’re bringing needles, trash and lots of lights and sirens.

By Joe Capozzi

Palm Beach Post staff writer

On Riviera Drive in Boynton Beach, frustrated homeowners joke that they live on "Rehab Drive" — because three of the 14 houses on the cul-de-sac are sober homes. But those homeowners aren't laughing; some walk around with pistols — protection, they say, after shouting matches with people in the sober homes.

In Palm Beach Gardens, some longtime homeowners in the Garden Woods neighborhood used to leave their garage doors open and front doors unlocked. Now, they're locked shut, they say, because a sober home opened weeks ago on Bayberry Street.

Less than a block from the ocean in Delray Beach, Ray Jones aims a security camera on his $1.7 million house directly across the street — at an upscale sober home full of wealthy drug addicts and alcoholics. "If anyone relapses," Jones said, "I want to know if they're coming on my property."

It's a delicate balance — the rights of homeowners to live without worry vs. the civil rights of addicts trying to get clean.

Welcome to the suburban front line in the national heroin epidemic.

It's right outside the living room window in neighborhoods across Palm Beach County, where homeowners say they're living under siege from a clandestine invasion of sober homes — an incursion spawned by the gold rush of the lucrative addiction treatment industry.

From a gated development in Wellington to the oceanfront in Delray Beach, they say they're finding needles near their driveways, staying up nights because of lights and sirens and, in worst cases, watching the medical examiner wheel corpses from the house next door.

Some people won't walk down their streets at night or let their children ride bikes during the day. Others buy houses just to prevent them from being turned into sober homes.

Most are damn angry.

They say their local governments, handcuffed by federal law, aren't doing enough. So, they vent on social media, protest at neighborhood meetings and complain to anyone who will listen.

"It's frustrating," said Joe Onimus, who has complained about noise and traffic from sober homes in his Boynton Beach neighborhood. "It's how I have to live. The only way to stop them is to let them know I won't put up with them."

'Not all sober homes are the same'

Also known as halfway houses, "three-quarter houses" and recovery residences, sober homes are the final step in treatment for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. Living with others trying to kick addiction helps them transition into sober living.

Plenty of well-run sober homes, which closely supervise recovering addicts, blend into neighborhoods without attracting attention.

But that doesn't always happen.

Horror stories about poorly supervised sober homes — including drug use, fatal overdoses and, in one case, accusations of addicts being prostituted — have clouded public perception of all sober homes.

"To think they would judge me is kind of sad. We are just regular people trying to get better."
— Eva Derrickson, recovering addict.

"People are scared," said Lisa McWhorter, chief executive of Wayside House, an addiction treatment center for women in Delray Beach. "They hear about addicts and the bad things that are happening. But not all sober homes and recovery residences are the same."

Many homeowners overreact when they hear about a sober home moving in down the street because they don't understand recovery or the fact that addiction is a disease, say addiction treatment experts.

"You can't presume they're a bad neighbor," said Jeffrey Lynne, a Delray Beach attorney who represents sober homes and treatment centers. "It's a stigma because 'we don't want those people living next to us.' It's fear."

Homeowners probably already are living among drug addicts and alcoholics — neighbors who aren't in recovery — but don't know it, experts say.

"A well-run sober house could have the least drug use in the neighborhood," said Andrew Rothermel, president of Origins Behavioral HealthCare, a drug and alcohol treatment center.

While some recovering addicts don't blame homeowners for being afraid, they also say it's not fair to assume that people trying to get clean are a threat to the community.

"To think they would judge me is kind of sad," said Eva Derrickson, 26, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict from Philadelphia. "We are just regular people trying to get better."

Eva Derrickson lives in a Loxahatchee sober home. (Joe Forzano / The Palm Beach Post)

'Why can't you do anything?'

No one knows exactly how many sober homes operate in Palm Beach County because they are unregulated. And since addiction is a disease protected under federal disability laws, the mere act of counting them could be viewed as discrimination.

Of the 199 sober homes across the state that voluntarily registered with the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, the vast majority — 118 — are in Palm Beach County, known for decades as the addiction treatment capital of America.

But the actual numbers are much higher because many sober homes don't register with FARR. For example, 15 are registered in Lake Worth, but city officials say the actual number could be as high as 75.

"I constantly hear the same thing: 'Sober homes are taking over the city. Why can't you do anything?' " said Lake Worth City Manager Michael Bornstein.

Palm Beach County is the U.S. mecca for the addiction treatment industry. Of 199 sober homes registered in Florida, 118 are here.

"The simple answer is, we can't. It's out of our control. As long as they are in treatment, they are protected."

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects addicts in recovery. The federal Fair Housing Act bars housing discrimination against the disabled, essentially trumping local zoning laws that would bar businesses from neighborhoods.

And many municipalities are wary of cracking down after the city of Boca Raton years ago spent $1.3 million in a losing effort to ban sober homes.

But homeowners don't care. They just want their elected leaders to get rid of the sober homes, echoing the "not in my backyard" cry more commonly heard in opposition to strip clubs, landfills and gas stations.

"We are frightened," said Debbie Finnie, a board member of the North Shore Neighborhood Association in West Palm Beach."These people are dropped into neighborhoods where people have lived for 35 to 40 years. It has turned our neighborhood upside down."

No solution is easy because it's a delicate balance — the rights of homeowners to live without worry vs. the civil rights of addicts trying to get clean.

Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein, whose city likely hosts hundreds of sober homes, says, ‘We as a city are handcuffed in every direction.’ (file photo)

"I get an email or a phone call every day, from different people, or I am stopped on the street. And the conversation is difficult. People just don't understand. We as a city are handcuffed in every direction," said Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein.

Glickstein, whose city is ground zero for sober homes in Palm Beach County, with a count estimated at several hundred, said one gun shop owner told him sober homes are good for business.

"I don't know of any other disability that is pushing people who never owned a firearm to now own one because they are concerned about public safety in their single-family home," he said.

Meanwhile, some residents in the city's Osceola Park neighborhood are beyond exasperated.

"This is supposed to be zoned 'single-family residential,'" said Gary Wulf. "It should be zoned 'heroin outpatient."'

'Dead body in my courtyard'

With its warm climate, palm trees and proximity to the ocean, Palm Beach County is an attractive place for business operators to market as a recovery mecca for people from as far away as New England, California and Michigan.

"They've created what I call 'the sober home highway,"' said Bornstein, the Lake Worth city manager.

But highly addictive drugs such as heroin are notoriously hard to escape. Relapse rates can be as high as 60 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And newly clean addicts who relapse are at a greater risk of dying.

In 2014, heroin killed more people in Florida than at any time since 1995, when the state began tracking heroin deaths. Heroin-related deaths hit 2,178 in 2014, a 51 percent increase over the previous year, the state figures show, with 128 deaths in Palm Beach County, a 62 percent increase over 2013.

While the state hasn't released numbers for 2015, law enforcement reports show the growth continued.

Bodies have been found in a Wal-Mart parking lot, in the bathrooms of fast-food restaurants and gas stations, in sober homes — and in the yards of ordinary citizens.

"I found a dead body in my courtyard today, needle in his arm. … it (sic) came as quite a shock to this artist who was just taking out the trash," Delray Beach resident Lynn DaVanzo Korp wrote on the Delray RAW Facebook page in February.

Lynn DaVanzo Korp was taking out the trash one day when she found a dead body, with a needle stuck in an arm, on this walkway.

Some sober homes offer another wrinkle to the tragic cycle, luring clients with free rent, cellphones and gym memberships, then kicking the clients out if they relapse or if their insurance runs out.

"If you bring them from Jersey, you should have to at least ship them back to Jersey. But they're not. They become our homeless. They become our street people," Lake Worth City Commissioner Andy Amoroso said.

"The bottom line is, people are coming here for services and help and they're not getting it."

Not 'an invasion of zombies'

Often, the only notice neighbors get about the arrival of a sober home is when they see a group of strangers carrying stacks of mattresses into a house. Or, they find out by seeing white passenger vans arrive in the morning and late afternoon to take addicts to and from treatment centers and support meetings.

"You can't presume they're a bad neighbor. It's a stigma because 'we don't want those people living next to us.' It's fear."
— Delray Beach attorney
Jeffrey Lynne

Or worse, when the sirens and lights from an emergency vehicle race past their house, often in the middle of the night, to respond to an overdose down the street.

"On Easter Sunday, my grandkids ran to the window. 'Look grandpa, it's a fire truck,"' Boynton Beach resident Onimus said. "(The strobing emergency lights) lit up my house like the Fourth of July."

Across Palm Beach County, at least nine people died of accidental overdoses in sober homes in the first seven months of 2015, according to a Palm Beach Post review of law enforcement records. Those deaths happened in five cities: Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Royal Palm Beach and Palm Springs.

The more common complaints from neighbors are noise and traffic from sober home residents and operators, some of whom block their driveways with cars and vans. Other big concerns: piles of trash and strangers smoking cigarettes outside.

Trash along with strangers smoking together outside are two of the biggest complaints about sober homes. (handout photo)

But some sober home operators say they believe the majority of sober homes don't cause problems like that.

Dawn Jonas said she has posted notices on social media inviting the public to tour her two sober homes in Delray Beach. No one has contacted her, she said.

"It's a NIMBY thing," she said of broad concerns she referred to as "a witch hunt." But she also said: "There are a lot of (sober homes) that aren't respectful of their neighbors. You're going to get people that are in it just for the money."

Harold Jonas, Dawn's husband and a recovery counselor, compared community fear to the TV show The Walking Dead.

"You would think there was going to be an invasion of zombies threatening to ruin and ransack their homes," he said, referring to complaints a few years ago in one neighborhood near the beach. "I don't know how to change that public perception on a mass level."

Dawn Jonas started Recovery Zone more than 20 years ago. She’s posted invitations on social media for people to tour her two Delray Beach homes, but no one has responded. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

'You don't know they're there'

The Delray Beach Drug Task Force, made up of community and industry representatives, is trying to raise awareness about quality treatment centers through lectures and other events.

A countywide version might have a bigger impact, said Rothermel, president of Origins Behavioral HealthCare.

"The thing with the Delray task force, they finally have people talking to each other. For a long time that was not the case," he said. "No one in the sober living industry would talk to the Delray staff or elected officials. Now, there's a realization that we're all in this together."

But at a recent conference, many addiction treatment executives agreed it's up to the industry to restore public confidence by policing itself.

"A truly well-run recovery residence, you don't know they're there," Lynne said.

That appears to be the case with an upscale halfway house at North Ocean and George Bush boulevards in Delray Beach, one of two operated near the beach by The Caron Foundation.

"It has not been a problem. They're good. They're quiet," said Thomas Cunnington, who lives across the street from the house.

But such words of praise are rare.

Neighbors are 'idiots wasting your time'

Even the sight of a "for sale" sign is enough to cause anxiety.

In Lake Worth's College Park neighborhood, several residents started calling Amoroso in January with concerns about a waterfront house purchased in August for $570,000 by a company called Brightlite Homes LLC.

Chris Graeve, an official with Brightlite, told The Post that the company plans to renovate the house and flip it to another buyer. He said he has no plans to convert it to a sober home, even though he and his Brightlite partner, Stuart Hankin, are listed in state corporate records with a company called Sober Living Palm Beach LLC.

When a reporter shared concerns from neighbors on the street that the house might turn into a sober home, Graeve snapped: "They're idiots and they're wasting your time."

In Westfield, a predominantly African-American neighborhood south of 45th Street and east of Interstate 95, Jaqueline Smith said she and other residents are approached at least once a week by white men interested in buying property to rent as sober homes.

"They knock on my door or stop me on the street: 'Are there homes available in this neighborhood?"'

That's also happening in Delray Beach, where some homeowners are fighting back with an expensive preventive approach.

Lisa and James Quillian outside a rental property they bought to keep it from becoming a sober home. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

James Quillian said he and his wife, Lisa, have spent close to $1 million over the past 10 years buying four homes in Osceola Park. The Quillians said they are investing in a neighborhood they love but they also bought the properties after hearing rumors that sober home operators were looking to snap them up.

"If we don't buy them, then it's going to get turned into something else," said James Quillian, a retired teacher.

'What do you do if they have a fix?'

In Wellington, homeowners in the gated community of Olympia were shocked to see 10 young men smoking cigarettes in the driveway of a sober home that opened in January in an upscale two-story house on a cul de sac.

"What do you do if they have a fix? How will they try to get money? That's my biggest fear," said Richard Leventhal, who lives two doors down.

White vans are often seen at sober homes. The vans used to drive addicts back and forth for treatment. (Joe Forzano / The Palm Beach Post)

The homeowner leased it to two women who operate Bliss Recovery. The owner told neighborhood officials he thought the two women planned to live there and didn't know they planned to run a sober home, said Bill Flack, president of the Olympia Master Association. He said the sober home closed in March.

In West Palm Beach, a sober house for women on Ardmore Road operated without problems for two years. But for the past six months it became "the thorn in our side," said Linda Cullen, president of the Flamingo Park Homeowners Association.

Among the complaints: Drivers of white vans laying on the horn at 7 a.m. to pick up the clients for trips to the treatment center and sober-home clients loitering on the street with their boyfriends, some arriving on motorcycles doing wheelies down the street.

Jacob Webb, founder of Desert Rose, which operates the sober house, said he was not aware of those issues until neighbors brought them to his attention in February.

"Everything they are talking about is completely unacceptable to me. If I would've known about it, I would have done something sooner," Webb told The Post.

"No program is perfect, but the good ones are judged on how they clean up mistakes."

A few weeks later, the owner of the house sold it. The eight residents have moved out and found homes elsewhere, Webb said. But neighbors are worried the house might still be used as a sober home.

'You get tired of calling the police'

When Joanne Varga of Delray Beach pulls into her driveway at night, she calls her husband who is in the house to come out and escort her inside.

"You never know what you're going to have to contend with," Frank Varga said, referring to the problems they say they've had since a sober home opened several years ago in an old motel across the street.

The problems, he said, include attempted break-ins to their house and cars. The Vargases say they keep a supply of plastic gloves close by — to pick up syringes and needles they often find in their driveway.

"You get tired of calling (the police) because it's every day," said Joanne Varga.

The motel, the Delray Inn, is owned by Harold and Dawn Jonas, who said it is no longer a sober home.

Closer to the beach, residents on Seaspray Avenue still complain about the $3 million mansion Caron Treatment converted into Ocean Drive, a sober house for the upscale clients who reportedly pay up to $60,000 a month.

Residents on Seaspray Avenue in Delray Beach complained about this $3 million sober home. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

Neighbors say it operates more like a boutique hotel, with traffic from delivery trucks and black SUVs with tinted windows that whisk clients to and from treatment at Caron facilities in Boca Raton.

"It has never made sense why that's not considered a business," said Kelly Barrette, who lives down the street.

"It's a mysterious neighbor. They want to be in the neighborhood, but they're not part of the neighborhood. All of the secrecy is what's problematic with the industry."

One Sunday morning in August, Barrette and her neighbors were shocked to see police cars, emergency vehicles and a medical examiner's car in front of the house. A client had hanged himself in a bedroom.

Neighbors on Seaspray became more suspicious of the sober home after they saw the Medical Examiner parked in front one Sunday morning. (handout photo)

The suicide has made neighbors suspicious about what goes on in the house.

"I have the 'Cadillac' of sober homes on my street and a guy hung himself there. What kind of oversight is going on in there?" asked Barrette, who launched the Take Back Delray Beach Facebook page in 2012 as a forum for community concerns about sober homes.

A sign posted on Seaspray Ave. in Delray Beach is situated across from a sober living facility operating as Caron Ocean Drive. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

Jones, who lives across the street from the home, said two Caron clients apologized to him after he posted a sign at the end of his driveway: "Caron, Your business is NOT WELCOME in our single-family neighborhood."

"They said they didn't realize (until after they'd arrived) it was in a single-family neighborhood like this," he said.

'I wouldn't have bought this house'

Of the 14 houses on Riviera Drive in Boynton Beach, three are sober homes, said Onimus and other neighbors.

City officials said they are well aware of at least two sober homes on Riviera Drive, a cul-de-sac that backs up to the Intracoastal Waterway just north of Woolbright Road. They're among the more than 30 alcohol and drug treatment facilities that have filed business tax receipt applications with the city.

Boynton’s ‘Rehab Drive’: There are 14 homes on Riviera Drive, a cul-de-sac of 14 homes just north of Woolbright Road backing up to the Intracoastal Waterway. At least two are sober homes (A – 657 Riviera Drive and B - 644). Neighbors say another house (C – 635) is also a sober home.

Those 30-plus facilities generate an average of 5.8 calls for emergency services a year, nearly four times the calls per year generated by single-family homes, according to a Boynton Beach Fire Rescue analysis.

They studied the issue to support the city's denial of a request by a sober home at 644 Riviera Drive to increase its number of residents to 12, twice the number allowed under city zoning rules for single-family homes used as group homes.

Good Works Recovery, which operates the home, has filed a housing discrimination complaint against the city with the Palm Beach County Office of Equal Opportunity.

The city has cited a different sober home on the same block, at 657 Riviera Drive, for numerous code violations, including locked doors to the second-floor balconies preventing a fire escape route, according to Diane Springer, the city's code compliance officer.

View from the Intracoastal Waterway of a sober home on Riviera Drive in Boynton Beach. (file photo)

In a three-week period in December, Boynton rescue crews responded to four emergency medical calls at 657 Riviera Drive, according to city records.

Onimus said he is so fed up with cars speeding to the two older sober homes on Riviera Drive that he stands in the street and aims a radar gun at them.

Raymond Henderson, who lives between Onimus' house and a sober home, said vans and vehicles block or park in his driveway.

"Normally you move into a neighborhood and you know your neighbors," he said. "You don't know what you've got here."

Your Life Recovery Center operates the home at 657 Riviera Drive, said Sean Selk, an attorney representing the company. Selk said he could not comment on the neighbors' concerns, but he would send an interview request from The Post to Martin Markowitz, who owns the company.

Markowitz, who owns another home on the street that neighbors suspect is a sober home, never responded for comment.

Addicts shouldn't 'look like their former using self'

In sober home circles, Delray Beach code officer Marc Woods is loved — or hated. Many people rely on him to know what's going on with sober homes in Delray Beach while others complain he doesn't do enough to crack down on them.

"They're afraid the recovery clients are still using drugs and they're criminals and their families and property are in danger. The problem is that fear and ignorance become a really, really mighty political force."
— Delray code officer
Marc Woods

"Every day I answer calls, emails and get visits from residents who are scared," said Woods.

"They're afraid the recovery clients are still using drugs and they're criminals and their families and property are in danger. The problem is that fear and ignorance become a really, really mighty political force."

At a recent substance abuse lecture hosted by the Delray Beach Drug Task Force, Woods offered several recommendations for how the recovery industry can ease the concerns of homeowners.

"Sober house operators have to meet with their neighbors and supply them with a 24-hour contact number. It disarms the fear," he said.

"All components of the recovery industry must encourage their clients to look sober. To dress for success and respect and not look like their former using self. This will help reduce the stigma and fear of the unknowing public when they run into them at Publix and the grocery stores and elsewhere around town."

Until that happens, homeowners like Jones, who posted the sign in his yard, may never be comfortable.

"I don't disagree that they have addictions and they need help and treatment. They're entitled to that. I just don't think it should be done in a single-family neighborhood. It's not what I bought into when I bought into Delray Beach 10 years ago," Jones said.

"The people I feel really sorry for are the people who spent their life savings on a $300,000 house, thinking they are getting in a nice neighborhood. And then these things pop up."

Staff writers Alexandra Seltzer, Mike Stucka, Gurman Bhatia, Pat Beall and researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.

Video: A sober home operator talks about being a good neighbor

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Video by Joe Forzano/Palm Beach Post staff.