Free rent to lure sober home customers faces crackdown


One of Palm Beach County’s top prosecutors on Tuesday issued a stark statement to South Florida’s lucrative drug and alcohol treatment community: The way you’ve been operating is illegal.

For years, the county’s billion-dollar industry has treated addicts as if they were mules lured by a farmer’s carrots, with owners of sober homes and treatment centers enticing them with promises of free rent or gifts.

The practice is so prevalent that it’s now “industry standard,” Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson said in front of the county’s Sober Homes Task Force.

And all of it is criminal.

“Patient inducements such as cigarettes, gift cards, Xboxes, gym memberships, clothes, shoes, rent or rent subsidies and free plane tickets are illegal,” Johnson said. “Cash or other form of compensation to sober homes, brokers, marketers or patients, either offered or accepted, in return for the referral of patients to a treatment facility or recovery residence, is illegal.”

Johnson’s statement was cheered by John Lehman, president of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences, the not-for-profit group that oversees voluntary certification of sober homes for the Department of Children and Families. He issued a similar statement to his members the week before.

“We at FARR have been seeking someone in authority to clarify the statute for four years,” Lehman said. “Finally, the day has arrived.”

Florida has a law against patient brokering, which says that a dentist, for example, isn’t allowed to pay a headhunter to find new patients. And an eye doctor can’t lure patients with cash or free gifts.

But because some people consider the law confusing, and because authorities have failed to crack down on the practice in South Florida, inducements have become commonplace in the freewheeling and largely unregulated drug rehab industry.

Stories abound of treatment centers paying “marketers” — essentially, headhunters with no medical training or certification — $500 or more for every new addict they bring to their facility. The marketers often target group meetings and coffee shops to find new addicts.

They often offer free rent or gifts.

Just because it’s commonplace doesn’t mean operators will be allowed to get away with it, Johnson added.

“When you get pulled over by a cop on I-95 and you tell the cop you’re going with the flow of traffic, that’s not going to get you out of a ticket,” he said.

Lehman is skeptical that Johnson’s statement alone will clean up the industry — the practice has been going on too long, and there’s too much money at stake.

But the task force, which must file a report to legislators by year end, is trying. It likely will recommend that legislators change the law so that treatment centers can offer recovering addicts free rent in exchange for following stricter regulations. If that happens, it would allow authorities to better crack down on poorly run sober homes.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Johnson said their efforts will lead to the closure of numerous sober homes, and he warned officials to prepare for an increase in the number of homeless.

“There’s going to be no place for these people to live,” he said. “Either they will go home, and hopefully they have a home to go to, or they will be on the street.”

The heroin epidemic has taken a toll on addicts, their families and friends and the public officials who treat overdoses. So far this year, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue has treated about 1,800 opioid-related overdoses, more than double last year’s rate, Capt. Houston Park said.

About 545 people have died from all opioid overdoses, which includes heroin and OxyContin, in the county this year, he said.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

NEW: Lake Park man tells PBSO he stole guns, sold them to drug dealers
NEW: Lake Park man tells PBSO he stole guns, sold them to drug dealers

A Lake Park man told authorities he stole guns — including an AR-15 — from a former employer, then sold three of them to drug dealers for heroin, according to an arrest report. Jake Daniel Hicks, 26, is facing five counts of grand theft of a firearm, three counts of burglary of an occupied dwelling and one count of possession of drug...
UPDATE: Boynton police reach relative of boy, 4, found alone in middle of night
UPDATE: Boynton police reach relative of boy, 4, found alone in middle of night

UPDATE, 6:10 a.m.: One of the boy’s relatives saw his photo on the news and is heading to the Boynton Beach Police Department to reunite with him, authorities said.  ORIGINAL POST: Police are asking for the public’s help in finding relatives of a 4-year-old boy who was found alone wandering around outside at 2:30 a.m.  Nasir was...
Sports & Recreation
Sports & Recreation

NORTHERN PALM BEACH COUNTY Gym Like This! of Riviera Beach concluded its Optional Season at the Florida State Championships. XCEL Silver’s Naomi Burton placed second on bars and third all-around, Level 6’s Ashlyn Jensen placed first on beam and Sophia Roberts tied for first on floor. Level 7’s Faith House placed first on vault and...
Police responding to report on naked man find him with crack, heroin

WEST PALM BEACH POLICE HOME BURGLARY A purse was stolen from a residence in the 2700 block of Poinsettia Avenue. Contents included a driver’s license, Social Security card and bus pass. During a break-in at a home in the 400 block of 29th Street, two men stole $106,250 worth of property, including Gucci and Hermes leather goods, Tiffany and Cartier...
The best and worst paint colors for every room
The best and worst paint colors for every room

Colors have a proven psychological effect on our moods. And the colors we choose for our homes have a proven influence on our overall quality of life. Using color psychology, we can create a home that relaxes, energizes and focuses us where and when we need it most. It just takes knowing which colors to use in which room — and which colors to...
More Stories