Ashley Omps (left) and Malissa Rose sit in the WV Capitol Food Court. Both women have been in recovery centers in West Virginia. Photo by Ellie Heffernan.

Malissa Rose and Ashley Omps both know how difficult it is to get treatment for a substance use disorder in West Virginia. 

Rose, now 38, began smoking marijuana at 13. She remembers needing to drink alcohol to attend high school without shaking. Omps, now 34, developed a substance use disorder after a doctor prescribed her painkillers at 17 for muscle spasms and back problems. 

Both recently graduated from Recovery Point Charleston. It’s one of the state’s many recovery residences, more commonly known as “sober living homes,” that help people who’ve stopped using addictive substances transition into long-term sobriety. 

Rose said her experience at Recovery Point was largely positive. Had she not gone there, she believes she’d still be in and out of jail. 

But not all experiences West Virginians have had in these homes have been good. Omps said she relapsed after being asked to leave a recovery residence after an argument with another resident.

“I just had a friend come and get me and went and overdosed five times in four days,” Omps said. “They asked me what was going to happen if they kicked me out, and I said ‘I’m going to go die. I’m going to go OD and die.’” 

It’s situations like this that lawmakers say they want to prevent with Senate Bill 147, which passed the Senate on the first day of session and is awaiting a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.  

Save for a few exceptions, the bill would prevent Cabell County recovery residences from kicking out residents without going through a formal eviction process. It would also require the state to study Cabell as a pilot program and consider expanding these protections to other parts of West Virginia. 

Bill sponsor Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said this is a way to crack down on bad operators instead of passing blanket restrictions on all recovery residences. 

“We welcome recovery in Huntington,” he said. 

The legislation is a less heavy-handed approach to regulating recovery residences than some West Virginia cities, like Parkersburg, have pursued. And it could help weed out poorly-run residences that present serious safety threats. But facility operators are worried the bill could have an additional effect: making it harder to protect the sobriety of everyone in their programs – and harder to run recovery residences in general. 

That could lead to fewer residences. And despite West Virginia’s continuing high levels of drug overdose deaths, and research showing the facilities help many people get better, large parts of the state have few or no certified recovery homes. 

Making it harder to operate sober living homes

About two weeks ago, a handful of recovery experts waited for the House Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse to start – and eventually discuss SB 147. Among them was Reggie Jones, the executive director of Recovery Point West Virginia. He doesn’t like the bill for several reasons. 

Recovery residence operators must sometimes quickly kick out a resident without going through a formal eviction process, Jones said. And that’s largely to protect other residents. 

SB 147 allows quick removal if a resident engages in threats, violence or sexual misconduct. Residents can also be kicked out immediately if they use, possess or distribute addictive substances.

“The way I’m interpreting this, someone could go out to a bar and get drunk and come back. They’re not using or possessing any substances on premises, but having someone come back that’s living in your recovery residence that is intoxicated certainly jeopardizes the recovery of the other remaining residents,” Jones said in an interview. 

Senate spokesperson Jacque Bland said the current form of the bill doesn’t clarify whether the location of the substance use is relevant, and this could be interpreted by the courts later on.  

Rose, who sat in on the committee meeting with Omps, later said this could jeopardize the sobriety of other residents. 

“Especially in early recovery . . . even if we see someone that is high, that’s a big trigger because it’s just a reminder of what it could be like . . .” Rose said. “And having to live with them, that would make it really hard and unfair.” 

Like people who spoke against the bill at the meeting, Rose is also concerned about its requirements regarding rent and fee refunds. If someone leaves a recovery residence before the end of the entire period they’ve paid rent for, the bill would require the operator to refund them for the remainder of their stay within 72 hours. In Rose’s opinion, that wouldn’t end well.

“It would be very detrimental to hand somebody a check, that you know already relapsed, and they’re going right back out to what they knew,” Rose said. “That’s like handing someone their death sentence.”

The bill would also allow residents to sue a recovery residence for damages if, for example, they believe it has violated the law by kicking them out unfairly. Operators say this, combined with the bill’s narrow exceptions, could open the door to frivolous lawsuits that make it so financially burdensome to run a recovery residence that new facilities won’t open. 

“This just creates an environment where we’re going to have some of the good providers sued out of existence,” said Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, who is openly in long-term recovery. “We’re going to be limiting the help of people who need help when we pass bills like this . . . I think what it’s aimed at is actually shutting down facilities, whether you’re good or bad.” 

Misplaced blame 

SB 147 is based on a Huntington city ordinance with similar provisions, and its supporters say recovery residences increase homelessness — an argument other cities have also used to restrict the growth of these facilities.

“We feel it was a problem that existed, that these people were being ejected into the street, and they were being made homeless, particularly people that were coming from other states or other areas of this state,” said Huntington City Attorney Scott Damron, speaking about the city’s reasoning for creating the ordinance. 

Lawmakers want to address this by requiring Cabell County recovery residences to pay for out-of-state residents to get home when they leave the facilities — whether they were kicked out, graduated or chose to leave.

For Jones, who told lawmakers fewer than 2% of residents at Recovery Point’s multiple facilities come from outside West Virginia, this aspect of the bill unfairly blames recovery residences for a problem they didn’t cause. 

In an email shared through a city spokesperson, Damron later said it was disingenuous of recovery residence operators to say the facilities weren’t increasing homelessness in Huntington. He also said Huntington recovery residences were also importing many residents from outside the city and outside the state. 

“We are not prepared to divulge any further information at this time because there are active considerations in place,” wrote Huntington Communications Director Bryan Chambers, when asked how the city knew this. 

But family physician Sydnee McElroy said, of the people she treats at Huntington nonprofit Harmony House’s volunteer clinic, few fit that description. Since 2019, she’s typically seen at least 10 or 12 patients several days a week – and many of them are in recovery or have active substance use disorders. Even still, she said very few people tell her they became homeless after being unfairly kicked out of a recovery residence. 

McElroy said she thinks there are more systemic factors behind homelessness in the city. 

“We have a huge lack of affordable housing in our community,” she said. “When people can’t afford housing, they become homeless.” 

‘The roof was literally collapsing’

McElroy and Jones’ experiences don’t support the bill’s premise that people are frequently being kicked out of recovery residences unfairly and left to live on the street. But that doesn’t mean it never happens.

“I have had people reach out to me and state that they were ejected overnight from a sober living home. . . I have a real problem with that,” said former Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader, who is now director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Health & Drug Control Policy. “Now, if somebody is actively using drugs or not following rules, I get ejecting them, but their safety should be number one. And ejecting somebody around midnight when it’s below freezing outside is not acceptable.”

In some cases, recovery residence operators also endanger residents by squeezing too many of them into a small space – and not completing key repairs. 

Omps had an experience like that in a Huntington recovery residence she described as a “traphouse for sober people.” 

“There were 16 of us girls crammed in one house . . .” she said. “And the roof was literally collapsing over my head. The ceiling was falling through. And I was the top bunk. ” 

Omps also had to plug the bathtub and fill it with cold water whenever she showered. Otherwise, the hot water constantly dripping from the faucet would burn her feet. 

Jones, executive director of Recovery Point, is also concerned by recovery residences that take advantage of residents like this. But he thinks the problem could be fixed without SB 147.

The state already has a nonprofit that vets, inspects and certifies recovery residences as being safe and high-quality: the West Virginia Alliance of Recovery Residences. But the process is completely voluntary. Jones thinks that should change. 

“WVARR needs to be given more teeth to be able to enforce their rules and the guidelines,” Jones said. “Now, they can deny certification, but there needs to be an entity that can actually come in and shut down a disreputable or improperly operating recovery residence.” 

Above all, Jones and others working in recovery don’t want to make it so difficult to start a recovery residence that they remain in short supply. Then people like Rose and Omps will keep having to travel far from home to get help.

Omps grew up in Berkeley Springs, and Rose has lived in some of West Virginia’s more rural counties, including Pocahontas, Randolph, Greenbrier and Nicholas. She remembers having to come to Highland Hospital in Charleston to detox, when she would have rather stayed near her family. Even today, many of the counties Rose has lived in do not have a certified recovery residence, let alone residences that cater specifically to women.

Although there is still work to be done, it’s clear that much has changed since both women’s journeys began. Not only are Rose and Omps in recovery from their substance use disorders, they’re also working with the group WV Family of Convicted People, telling lawmakers about their experiences in jail and advocating for others who’ve been incarcerated.

“I’m used to telling people my story because, to me, my story is kind of my redemption. Because I come through all that,” Rose said. 

“That’s the main thing that I try to get out, is that everyone has a voice. They should use it,” Omps agreed. 

Ellie Heffernan is the community watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.