Experts say the lack of regulation creates an environment in which the city's most vulnerable could be exploited.
"Recovery houses aren't under any state regulations," said Deb Beck, president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania. "Recovery houses do not fall under licensure rules. There's no license for someone opening a house."
"Nobody can actually do anything because there's nothing on the books," said Rivera. "The city is not taking care of its residents."
Recovery houses are required to get a housing-inspection license, said Maura Kennedy, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections. L&I will inspect a house if there are complaints of code violations or overcrowding.
Richard Fairbanks, a University of Chicago professor and author of How it Works: Recovering Citizens in Post-Welfare Philadelphia, said: "It's like a sleeping dog. It's fine left alone as long as it's in areas in concentrated poverty. There's not really any political will or support to start a 'not in my back yard' battle."
A drug hub
Philadelphia has become a drug-recovery hub, with some addicts traveling from around the region and even as far as Puerto Rico to start their road to recovery.
Meanwhile, neighborhoods with mansion-like, dirt-cheap vacant houses are prime locations for recovery-home operators.
"There's a lot of houses, a lot of vacancies and [the houses are] quite inexpensive to get," said Tracy O'Drain, managing director for the Frankford Community Development Corp. "The plethora of houses creates an opportunity for slumlords to come in and do this type of thing."
Eighteen recovery houses receive a total of $4 million from the city, and an additional 12 houses get federally funded Access to Recovery grants and are subject to certain standards like complying with housing codes and city regulations and ensuring residents are in licensed treatment programs, said Roland Lamb, the city's director of the Office of Addiction Services.
There are 128,000 recovering addicts in Philadelphia, and although many of the homes do provide services to help them get back on their feet, some are seen as little more than "warehouses" for drug addicts.
One Frankford recovery-home operator who asked not to be named said he has houses in North and West Philly that would not meet the city's standards because they are over capacity.
"An operator that becomes interested in warehousing welfare recipients [and] has no vision of any sort of recovery model, becomes an unregulated boardinghouse," Fairbanks said. "It can become a predatory economy without regulation."
Former drug addicts say that some operators take their welfare money, while providing little to nothing in return.
"The [operators] take the [state-funded cash assistance] card, your food stamps, have us living in unlivable conditions," said a recovering drug addict at a community meeting in Frankford who did not provide her name. "Half of the time we didn't even have food. They're taking taxpayers' money and benefiting from other people's weaknesses. Sometimes we don't even have running water, heat, gas, electric [and] food."
Jeanna Goodwin, who recently closed the New Desires Inc. recovery house her father opened in Frankford nearly two decades ago, said she found herself competing with bad recovery homes in which operators allowed residents to do as they pleased, without rules and regulations.
"We had policies, procedures and community events," Goodwin said. "There were still these bad houses that made it impossible to operate."
Goodwin sold her house to Stephanie Scully, who operates 10 recovery houses in the city, including Joy of Living in Frankford.
Twenty-one men live in Scully's Frankford house, paying $110 a week for food and rent. Each of the men is required to attend weekly meetings like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, and they have chores and responsibilities in the house.
"It's like a second phase of treatment," Scully said.
The business can be quite profitable, but Scully said that depends on how much an operator puts back into a house for upkeep. There are also times when operators have residents who cannot pay for their stay, she said.
"A lot of recovery houses are stigmatized, and a lot of them are not about what we do, which is helping people," Scully said. "A neighbor, a community will basically label us, thinking we fit into this category. . . . If anybody knows me, they know I run a good program."
Lamb, director of the Office of Addiction Services, said his office has been working with Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, whose 7th district is home to a majority of the recovery houses, and L&I to point out problematic homes. The office has inspected a couple hundred homes over the past few years.
Lamb said residents have complained about blackouts - a period in which residents are required to follow strict rules - not getting enough to eat, unsanitary conditions and having home operators withhold their welfare money.
He said his office reports problem providers to L&I and gives people the opportunity to go to another recovery house. He said that the office doesn't keep records of complaints and that serious cases are addressed immediately.
"What can we do?" he said. "We do not have any enforcement capability."
After a string of protests by fed-up residents living next door to some problematic drug-and-alcohol recovery houses, City Council tried in vain to get a handle on the budding industry in 1995.
Councilman Jim Kenney sponsored legislation that would've required operators of drug-recovery homes to get Zoning Board approval, but Council rejected that rule as well as a proposal for operators to get licenses and insurance and to keep records such as residents' urine-test results. Both were opposed by the industry.
Kenney said the proposals conflicted with federal laws that protect the disabled and prohibit housing discrimination.
State Rep. Tony Payton, whose district includes Frankford, said there needs to be an agency that deals solely with drug-and-alcohol recovery houses.
"We need a team of inspectors to check out these houses," he said. "Can't just go one time. It's a conversation that should trickle up to the mayor."
The National Association of Recovery Residences established a set of standards last year to improve the conditions and establish accountability among recovery houses.
"We want to have these owners in it for the right reasons," said Fred Way, a NARR vice president who started the Philadelphia Association of Recovery Residences in January. "The whole thing is about being a good neighbor."
Way said the organization will train operators on how to run a business. He said he will also monitor and inspect the homes and hopes to eventually have a complaint hot line.
When John Gallagher, a recovering addict, opened the First Step to Recovery several years ago, it was an all-men recovery house with its share of problems.
"It was such a revolving door," said Rivera, who lives next door to the house. "They had fights out there. They were blatantly high."
Gallagher admitted the men were selling drugs in the back of the house and said that when he found out, he immediately kicked the men out and converted it to a recovery house for women.
The home houses women like Tammy Emsley, 39, whose battle with drug addiction started 17 years ago when she began using painkillers to numb the excruciating pain associated with endometriosis - a disorder in which cells from the lining of her womb grows in other areas of her body. At 25, she became a heroin addict.
Emsley comes from a family of addicts. Her mother took her last, fatal hit recently when the two got high.
Emsley has been in and out of rehab, drug-detoxification centers and drug-recovery homes trying to kick the habit.
"This was my last hope or else I know I'm going to end up like my mom," Emsley said of First Step to Recovery. "I knew after 14 years of trying to stay clean I needed to try something different."
Recovery houses are supposed to provide a safe, stable, structured, sober environment and support for recovering addicts as they become productive members of society.
Each recovery house has its own program. Clients are generally referred to houses from treatment centers, prisons or hospitals. Others find out about houses through word-of-mouth.
No research has been done to examine how effective recovery homes are in Philadelphia.
Dr. Amy Mericle, a researcher with the Treatment Research Institute in Center City, received a $155,813 grant from the state in February to conduct a study of recovery houses that is expected to be complete in April.
The first goal, she said, is to understand what the homes do.
"A safe and supportive environment to pursue recovery is essential," Mericle said. "Recovery homes can fill that void."
Contact Jan Ransom at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5218. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom. Read her blog at PhillyClout.com.