‘Nothing about us without us’ : Pa. advocates address statewide challenges to recovery

Sens. John Kane, D-Chester, and Christine Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia, who are in recovery, stressed the importance of effective treatment and ensuring facility safety

By: - January 20, 2022 5:16 pm

Sarah Laurel and Adam Al-Asad, co-founded Savage Sisters Recovery, a Philadelphia community outreach program for substance use recovery efforts. (Contributed photo by Stephanie Storti)

Savage Sisters Recovery — now operating five recovery houses, with a sixth in the works — started as a way for co-founder Sarah Laurel to share resources with people recovering from substance use disorder.

Laurel has research and data to inform how the Philadelphia nonprofit approaches community outreach and the stigma around addiction. However, it is her recovery that shaped how Savage Sisters operates.

She was one of six panelists to testify before the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Policy Committee on Thursday to speak about challenges to substance use disorder and recovery homes, which are group settings for individuals recovering from addiction.

When Laurel and Adam Al-Asad, her brother, started organizing Savage Sisters, they had minimal funding but still built the program and became a nonprofit. They used Laurel’s recovery process to mold their approach to helping those in need, she told lawmakers.

When they opened their first recovery house in 2019, Al-Asad said they started utilizing dual diagnosis trauma therapy, which treats people for mental illness and addiction — something Laurel found helpful.

“It immediately became the most effective program that we offered to our residents,” Al-Asad said, adding that they also learned “people need more than a bed and a drug test to combat the disease of addiction.”

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, declared the opioid and heroin overdose epidemic a public health emergency in January 2018 when Pennsylvania reported a record for opioid deaths. The declaration expired in August after the Republican-controlled Legislature, with expanded emergency powers, declined a request from Wolf to extend it.

Though the Wolf administration and legislative Republicans have supported bills to make treatment more accessible and regulate the distribution and disposal of medications, overdose deaths have continued to increase, reaching a three-year high in 2020.

The rallying cry of the recovery community is “nothing about us without us,” Bill Stauffer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Recovery Organizations Alliance, said. He added that the best way to develop treatment programs — or to answer that rallying cry statewide — is by elevating and funding community recovery organizations.

“I’ve heard this for years — people have said how important my lived experience is and how powerful my message is, but I’m not invited in,” Laurel said. “I’m not invited in, and neither are my people.”

Al-Asad added that becoming a nonprofit was a better solution to running an “effective” recovery house, saying that it “would be utterly impossible to operate our home in an effective manner solely through the funds generated through rent paid by residents.”

“One keyword that I just mentioned is effective,” he said.

While an individual or group can operate a recovery home using only rent funds, Al-Asad said those homes are ineffective and operate under unsanitary conditions, with some state-funded programs that consist of rows of bunk beds and an “unstructured environment.”

 He added that most recovery homes in the Philadelphia area consist of a three-bedroom home, with 3.2 people per room and between nine and 10 people per house.

“You might ask yourself, ‘Is stuffing nine to 10 adults in a three-bedroom, 1,000 square-foot home legal?’ the answer is yes,” he said.

Savage Sister homes have a 56 percent long-term recovery rate and offer dual diagnosis trauma therapy, yoga, nutritional therapy, and kickboxing. Trauma therapy has an 80 percent long-term recovery rate, Al-Asad added.

Laurel and Al-Asad proposed the Harmful Ethics Reduction subcommittee, also used by Savage Sisters, of individuals who are in recovery to take written statements from men and women in the recovery community who experienced unethical behaviors, such as prescription sharing or sexual coercion.

If used by the state, the committee could help approve homes and help oversee where funding goes. 

Home operators, Al-Asad said, should be directed to use funds to provide programs and pay consultants, staff expenses, and recovery homes should be prioritized and led by people with lived experience.

Sens. John Kane, D-Chester, and Christine Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia, who are in recovery, stressed the importance of effective treatment and ensuring facility safety.

“Recovery is contagious,” Kane, who lived in a communal, sober setting during his process, said. “There [are] no truer words out there.”

Pennsylvania licenses about 800 substance abuse treatment centers. Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs Jennifer Smith said the state does not have an exact number for how many recovery homes are operating in Pennsylvania but estimates thousands.

“But we don’t know where they all are,” she said.

Until this month, the state did not charge for licenses or impose fines for violating state regulations.

Smith said that the licensing process for recovery homes has started. So far, seven have completed applications, and 23 are in the works, she said. Beginning June 9, the state will start imposing fines for unlicensed homes.

 Houses that receive state or federal funds must be licensed. Entities that are state or federally funded that want to make referrals must make those recommendations to licensed providers, Smith said. As soon as a license is granted, it will be posted online, similar to licensed treatment facilities.

“What has distinguished recovery houses from treatment facilities in the past is that recovery houses have no treatment requirement as part of the conditions of living there,” Smith said. “So people who live there might be going to treatment, but it’s not a condition or a requirement of their living situation whereas treatment facilities treatment is part of the requirement of you participating or attending that facility.”

Last month, recovery advocates testified before the policy committee and outlined the difficulties that come with finding information about treatment options, specifically the requirements and conditions of recovery houses.

When the state launches the online resources for recovery houses, Smith said it will only include licensed houses.

But the subcommittee proposed by Laurel and Al-Asad, a non-government agency, could help evaluate programs, lead inspections, and address any issues that arise.

“Our recovery community, we speak to each other,” she said. “If you’re looking for a list of recovery houses, this subcommittee could help with that. We know whether they’re licensed or not.” 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.