A Choice for Recovering Addicts: Relapse or Homelessness

Kim Barker, A Choice for Recovering Addicts: Relapse or Homelessness. The New York Times, 30 May 2015. “After a lifetime of abusing drugs, Horace Bush decided at age 62 that getting clean had become a matter of life or death. So Mr. Bush, a homeless man who still tucked in his T-shirts and ironed his jeans, moved to a flophouse in Brooklyn that was supposed to help people like him, cramming into a bedroom the size of a parking space with three other men.

Mr. Bush signed up for a drug-treatment program and emerged nine months later determined to stay sober. But the man who ran the house, Yury Baumblit, a longtime hustler and two-time felon, had other ideas.

Mr. Baumblit got kickbacks on the Medicaid fees paid to the outpatient treatment programs that he forced all his tenants to attend, residents and former employees said. So he gave Mr. Bush a choice: If he wanted to stay, he would have to relapse and enroll in another program. Otherwise, his bed would be given away.”

Mr. Bush had fallen into a housing netherworld in New York City, joining thousands of other single men and women recovering from addiction or with nowhere to go. The homes are known as “three-quarter” houses, because they are seen as somewhere between regulated halfway houses and actual homes.

Virtually unnoticed and effectively unregulated, the homes have multiplied over the past decade, driven by a push to reduce shelter rolls, a lack of affordable housing and unscrupulous operators….

The homes, often decrepit and infested with vermin, overflow with bunk beds and people. Exits are blocked and fire escapes nonexistent. The homes are considered illegal because they violate building codes on overcrowding. Many have become drug dens, where people seem almost as likely to die of overdoses as they are to move on to a home of their own.

Opportunistic businessmen like Mr. Baumblit have rushed to open new homes, turning them into vehicles for fleecing the government, an investigation by The New York Times found. The target is easy: vulnerable residents whose rents and treatments are paid for with taxpayer money.

Yet three-quarter homes are tolerated and even tacitly encouraged, pointing to a systemic failure by government agencies and institutions responsible for helping addicts and the poor….

The system, such as it is, dooms tenants to a perpetual cycle of treatment and relapse, of shuttling between programs and three-quarter houses….

Over the past six months, The Times pieced together information about Mr. Baumblit’s operation through interviews with more than 85 current and former tenants, a review of thousands of pages of court and medical records and a database of housing payments from the city’s Human Resources Administration….

Three-quarter houses, also called sober or transitional homes, are a product of the murky world of outpatient substance abuse treatment for the poor. Their numbers have grown in the past decade, as the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pushed to reduce shelter rolls and the economy sank….

The troubled people who wind up in the homes have few options. Many see the city’s shelter system as even more dangerous. Single people on public assistance have received the same housing allowance since 1988, $215 a month, not enough for much of anything in a city where the median monthly rent is more than $1,200….

Even just a small bender was a psychological blow for tenants struggling to keep their new sobriety in the face of temptations that had always won out in the past.

“Oh, my demons — I fight and I fight and I fight and I lose,” Mr. Bush said. “And Mr. Yury takes advantage of it. This whole three-quarter system does. It’s made for us to fail.”…

New York’s safety net for the poor relies on three-quarter homes to solve a problem: They take in the people no one else wants. Yet, essentially, nobody regulates these homes.