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Rehab Or A Racket? Sober Living Houses in Florida

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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB)--Sober living houses operate across Florida and are unregulated by the state. The idea is to provide addicts with an environment conducive to recovery, yet some say they are simply a way to capitalize on the deadly opioid epidemic.

Tiffany Jenkins was the captain of her cheerleading team, a straight-A student, a daughter and a friend--until she had her first sip of alcohol.

"I ended up dropping out, " Jenkins said. "It was that quick."

Her addiction eventually progressed from alcohol to opioids--sending her into a downward spiral which ended in her arrest.

"It was like the addiction had been living inside of me the whole time and I didn't know," Jenkins said.

After her arrest, she went to rehab. Following her rehabilitation she found the Purpose House--a faith-based sober living facility that she attributes to five years of sobriety. But hundreds of addicts across the state seeking help from sober homes aren't as lucky.

"These people go in there thinking it could be the beginning of a new life only to find it could be their downfall," Jenkins said.

Instead of finding that new life, they're finding a crippled system, riddled with insurance fraud and in some cases abuse.

It's particularly rampant on the east coast of Florida, home to more rehab centers than just about anywhere else in the country.

The state's opioid epidemic is tearing through the Gulf coast. Manatee County has more overdose deaths per capita than anywhere else in the state. Now Sarasota and Manatee Counties are seeing a boom in sober living facilities.

Centerstone Addiction Treatment is a mental health clinic which also offers support services for those struggling with addiction. Ken Brown is a recovery support specialist, helping addicts find sober living after rehab.

He says the vast majority of program locally are doing good work, however there are always those looking to exploit patients.

"We need the money to fight this epidemic or drugs in our country. We absolutely need it, but there are going to be the people that see that as a pot of gold," Brown said.

Brown says part of the problem is that there's more money in relapse that there is in sobriety.

"They will have a built-in repeat customer base. If that client relapses, where are they going to go? They're going to go right back to that same facility over and over and over again," Brown said.

Sober homes can pop up in just about any residential neighborhood and they're difficult to regulate because of the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Plus, the Affordable Care Act makes payment for addiction treatment virtually unlimited. All well intended and important laws that some are taking advantage of.

The owner of Purpose House, Alan Tobiason, is frustrated by the trend.

"Bad people who are preying on vulnerable people that are trying to get sober," Tobiason said.

Tobiason says people taking advantage of addicts give a bad name to sober living facilities that really work like Purpose House.

"It an reflect poorly on those of us that are really trying to save lives," Tobiason said.

This summer, the state legislature passed a bill cracking down on sober living facilities. Tobiason says the new rules are ones his facility has followed for years, but he hopes it will put an end to fraudulent operations.

"I've just seen too many people die to this opiate addiction and I would love to see it stamped out. We need to make some changes," Tobiason said.

Jenkins' only hope is that other addicts can get the help she was given.

"I will always be an addict no matter what, but I've been supplied with the tools I needed by an actual halfway house that is more than just a halfway house," Jenkins said. "Now I'm trying to be a successful adult and I'm trying to raise three little people to do the same."