Community Members & Neighbors to Sober House: “You Blindsided Us”
Last month we published a story about Marblehead’s first-ever sober house, which has been fully operational now for approximately five weeks. Following its opening and our article, the management of Humphrey Sober House – a Vanderburgh Community property – agreed to hold a question-and-answer session with the community.
On Monday night, the Jewish Community Center hosted the 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. gathering, which ultimately went beyond 9:00 p.m. The packed meeting included many who stood on the sides and at the back of the full room for the entirety of the three hours.
The session began with remarks by Hunter Foote, the founder and Executive Director of Vanderburgh Communities (Vanderburgh IC, LLC), followed by Scott Murray, a Marblehead fire captain and the individual who leases and operates the property. Additional input was offered by Michelle Ngila, the president of Shelle Realty, LLC, which owns the property leased by Murray. The three offered an overview of the sober living arrangement at Humphrey Sober House, a single-family house that was purchased in 2022 and currently has three residents and one house manager, with a maximum of 20 residents slated to live among the five bedrooms.
“You Snuck into the Community”
Of the dozens of questions asked – and at times shouted – throughout the evening, among the primary sentiments shared was a sense of mistrust after the for-profit sober house opened for business with no notification made to neighbors, abutters, or even town officials. “It was sneaky,” said one community member. “You’re trying to hide something,” said another. Others echoed similar feelings, expressing serious concerns over the manner in which the franchise-style house opened.
While audience members expressed empathy for those with substance use disorder – including two emergency-room nurses who spoke – there was clear anger from those who felt that the house “came in under the radar,” thereby not engendering trust in the community. Additionally, there was frustration with the fact that rooming houses and other such for-profit endeavors would have more rigorous notification and other requirements. “If I wanted to open an AirBNB,” said one resident, “and allow 20 people, I couldn’t do it.” This, he said, was in contrast to the Humphrey Sober House, which was allowed to come in with no notice provided to the town. Sober homes in Massachusetts are exempt from most zoning and other municipal requirements, as persons in drug or alcohol addiction recovery are protected under federal and state disability laws.
Murray, Foote, and Ngila all acknowledged that they had, in fact, failed to communicate their plans to anyone locally, only doing the required state notifications to receive their voluntarily-acquired Mass Alliance for Sober House (MASH) certification. The reason for not notifying local residents or town officials, Foote and Ngila stated, was due to their prior experience in other communities, where few residents were interested. “No one came to our other open houses,” said Ngila.
Audience members rejected this response, noting that Marbleheaders were not looking for an open house as much as notice that the single-family home was going to be utilized as a sober living residence for up to 20 men, including some with serious criminal backgrounds. One resident noted that of the dozens of Vanderburgh Communities properties, Humphrey Sober House was the first to open in a strictly residential area in a quiet community – near a school bus stop – as opposed to most of its existing homes that are in mixed business/residential areas of cities like Worcester, New Bedford, Beverly, Brighton, and Springfield.
When asked why Vanderburgh Communities made the unusual choice of a residential neighborhood in Marblehead for a sober living arrangement rather than an area similar to its other properties, Foote stated, “because it’s a safe, quiet community that they can re-assimilate back into.”
One audience member disagreed, stating that it was because Vanderburgh is all about “wealth creation,” according to its website. Furthermore, said another, after only a little over one month in operation, the Marblehead Sober House has already had one of its residents overdose in the middle of the street. Murray disputed the details of the account, stating that while a “medical situation” did arise that caused the resident to be evicted, the man had not, in fact, overdosed.
Screening Process, Metrics, and Outcomes
Murray and Foote answered several questions concerning the vetting of residents, acknowledging that the process typically is conducted online, with no in-person meetings before move-in. Additionally, while those with fire-starting or sex crime histories are not allowed to live at the home, Murray noted that Criminal Offender Record Information (CORIs), Sex Offender Registry Information (SORIs), and fingerprinting are not part of the process.
Though many sober house applicants already provide paperwork from agencies that offer substantial information about the applicants’ past far more extensive than that contained in a CORI or SORI, Murray did suggest he plans to consider course-correcting on the matter of CORIs.
Asked about success and failure outcomes, Foote stated that Vanderburgh does not track such data. Murray says he tracks information regarding all of his residents, but was unable to provide precise data about outcomes pertaining to relapses and other related matters. The information about the application and vetting process for residents at Humphrey Sober House as well as the dearth of outcome-tracking was met with surprise by many in the audience, with one community member noting, “I’m shocked that you don’t have data to validate what you’re saying.”
Neighbor Safety and Property Values Concerns vs. NIMBY Attitudes
While some registered serious concern about the family neighborhood now including a sober home with people who might have significant criminal records, others speculated that property values will take a dive given the residential nature of the community.
Foote himself got frustrated with a “line of questioning” he deemed to be an uncharitable view of the residents of a sober home, stating that “everyone has to live somewhere, and we can’t create a society where it’s always somewhere else; it’s always the next town over.” He made one particular comparison that was met with groans in the crowd when he stated, “If we had a group of black people move in and something goes missing from somebody’s house that kind of attitude toward that is the same thing.”
Murray at one point referenced his own personal experience having dealt with addiction-related issues as a teenager, noting how grateful he was to have the support of his family and a town (Marblehead) that was helpful, ultimately inspiring him to dedicate his life to the substance abuse field. (Beyond his work as a Marblehead Fire captain, Murray is a social worker with decades of experience in substance-use disorder.)
Profitability and Giving Back
In response to being asked what the company does to “give back to the town,” Foote stated, “Vanderburgh Communities does not do a whole heck of a lot beyond bare-bones support services to operators like Scott.” He suggested, however, that the impact on Marblehead of Humphrey Sober House is to help individuals struggling with addiction. “20 individuals that are serious about recovery in a sober living home is a lot better than 20 people sleeping on park benches, sleeping on the beach, robbing convenience stores, or shooting up drugs. Every community has a problem whether they admit it or not.”
Marblehead boasts approximately eight to ten Alcoholics Anonymous andor other addiction support group meetings most days of the week. Anecdotally it is known as a town that is no stranger to substance use disorder, and has dozens of bars andor alcohol licenses. But the types of problems examples noted by Foote have thus far not typically been associated with Marblehead. The Town’s police force, noted one community member, is ill equipped given its size to deal with an increase in drug- and alcohol-related emergencies. Murray, however, is not concerned, and stated that contrary to what some believe, his Beverly sober house last year had only three first-responder interactions. One audience member stated that she had heard something quite different from a neighbor of the Beverly property.
Murray additionally offered that while the Vangerburgh Communities model is a business, in his approximately one year of operating the sober home in Beverly, and in the time he’s operated the Marblehead one, he has not made any money, particularly as energy costs have soared. Any profit from the Beverly home, he said, has gone into the capital expenditures for Marblehead.
Ngila, whose LLC owns the Marblehead property, stated that she is not asking for lease monies from Murray while he is not making enough to pay. In a conversation Marblehead Beacon had with Ngila after the meeting, we asked how her LLC could afford to own a million-dollar house and not collect lease payments. She advised us that her lender – Genesis Community Loan Fund – is a “mission-driven lender” who vetted her and her goals, ultimately providing her with additional money beyond the purchase price as a buffer for leases that aren’t able to be paid in the beginning. She stated she has six months until she will need to collect those monies from Murray. She already owns three properties funded by Genesis, she said, and is on target for three more.
One community member asked if Vanderburgh Communities would commit to another question-and-answer session in approximately a month to update residents on matters brought up at Monday’s meeting. Another asked if a paper could be passed around to provide email addresses to Vanderburgh for follow up. Foote agreed to the latter, but whether there will be a follow-up meeting is unclear.
“The way this whole night is going, we have to prove ourselves,” Ngila offered, adding that she was aware from the temperature of the meeting that words would do little to assuage the concerns of those who did not trust the motivations and plans regarding Humphrey Sober House.