City reviews the health and safety of recovery houses

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  • Henry Green sits surrounded by some of the people he has helped through the Grace and Gratitude Sober Living program. He and Dr. Jeff Blyth are both recovering addicts and fighting the city of Fernandina Beach to keep the four houses that comprise Grace and Gratitude’s facilities open. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    Henry Green sits surrounded by some of the people he has helped through the Grace and Gratitude Sober Living program. He and Dr. Jeff Blyth are both recovering addicts and fighting the city of Fernandina Beach to keep the four houses that comprise Grace and Gratitude’s facilities open. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
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No one disputes that Henry Green provides a valuable – some say lifesaving – service in Fernandina Beach. Places for people who have nowhere else to go, due to the life they lived as addicts. But, can Green legally operate a residential recovery facility in the city? That is the question at the heart of what Fernandina Beach says are code enforcement violations at the houses used for Grace and Gratitude Sober Living Inc.

Green rents four houses in the city that he uses to operate Grace and Gratitude. The houses are located on Vernon Street, South 10th Street, South Ninth Street, and South 13th Street.

Grace and Gratitude receives no local, state or federal funding; no grants or loans or other funding other than a $21.50 daily fee from residents. Green said each house costs approximately $2,000 a month to operate, and the program often operates in the red.

Residents come from the county’s drug and veteran courts, hospitals, rehab programs, jail, and simply off the street. He provides an address, which those in recovery need in order to qualify for services. They live in the houses, separate residences for males and females, for the $21.50 program fee, as Green does not charge rent. The residents get a bed, access to a washer and dryer, bathroom, kitchen, and common area. They are required to attend the twice-daily Narcotics Anonymous and/or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, to keep their living space clean, to get a job, and keep the house clean.

Food is not provided, but everyone is encouraged to buy enough to cook “family style” for everyone in the house. Those staying in the houses sign a contract before they are allowed to stay, and must adhere to the rules to stay. They must, above all, stay alcohol- and drug-free.

In addition to housing, Green helps residents find jobs, acquire clothes suitable for job hunting, and get to appointments and work. He also helps them get medical treatment and connects residents with agencies such as Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare and Barnabas Center. Green also helps them obtain official identification and driver’s licenses. He has coordinated with a local bicycle shop and a scooter store so residents have the ability to get to work. He counsels the residents one-on-one and in groups.

On July 31, Fernandina Beach Code Enforcement issued violation notifications to the four houses that operate as Grace and Gratitude. Some of the violations were for minor infractions, such as garbage and unauthorized overnight parking. But two of the residences were, the city said, violating City Code 6.02.16 – Group Homes and two were violating 6.02.17 – Group Residential.

Green said he has been operating Grace and Gratitude for seven years, and questions why the city has only recently told him he is violating code.

Code Enforcement Director Michelle Forstrom said the process did not begin recently, but in 2019 when it came to her attention that Green was opening a women’s shelter. In May of 2019, city staff met to discuss the Land Development Code regarding group homes and group residential facilities in the city.

Forstrom said city staff met with Green in July 2019 to discuss the Land Development Code regarding group homes and the regulations associated with their operation.

“In August of 2019, city staff met with Mr. Green again to discuss the Land Development Code regarding his current Group Home and future Group Homes and the regulations, restrictions and options associated with their operation,” Forstrom wrote in an email to the News-Leader. “We explained that Henry Green must get licensed in order to operate a Sober Home, and then he would need an LBTR (Local Business Tax Receipt) from the City. In July we started getting complaints about a sober home. Come to find out, Mr. Green had continued his Group Home/Sober Home at (four locations). All of these are being operated without any licensure or inspections. A case was started for each location.”

The complaints, Forstrom said, came from a concerned neighbor. “They do not want this kind of activity in their neighborhood and they are aware that it is not allowed there,” Forstrom said. “As I have said before, Mr. Green was told what he would need to do to operate legally. He chose not to do so.”

The three homes cited with violations of the group home ordinance – 6.02.16 – are, according to the Nassau County Property Appraisers map, zoned R-2 as defined by the city’s Land Development Code, so a group home is allowed. The fourth address was cited with a violation of 6.02.17, which sets forth rules for a group residential facility. Forstrom said that residence has come into compliance, so that case will not move forward.

The violation notices say that in order to come into compliance with city code, the property owner must “Provide proof of all required local, county, state and federal licensure, as well as fire safety standards and comply with all city codes; or cease and desist all group home activities.”

But, according to Green and his associate, Dr. Jeff Blyth, Grace and Gratitude is not a group home or a group residential facility, but a “recovery residential facility,” as defined by state and federal law.

Florida statute 397.311 defines a recovery residence as “a residential dwelling unit, or other form of group housing, that is offered or advertised through any means, including oral, written, electronic, or printed means, by any person or entity as a residence that provides a peer-supported, alcohol-free, and drug-free living environment.” Green maintains that Grace and Gratitude falls under that definition.

But Fernandina Beach City Code only has sections that deal with group homes and group residential facilities, not recovery residences, so City Attorney Tammi Bach says those sections of code that govern group homes and group residential have to be applied to Grace and Gratitude.

The opinion that City Code does not apply to Grace and Gratitude is shared by Steve Farnsworth, executive director of the Florida Association of Recovery Residences.

According to Farnsworth, the law that allows Green to operate a recovery residence in Fernandina Beach is the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that a disability is “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” Alcoholism and drug addiction are considered “impairments” under the definition of the ADA. And, as the Fair Housing Amendments Act prohibits discrimination against any buyer or renter with a disability due to a handicap, the reasoning follows that not allowing people whose disability is drug addiction or alcoholism to live in a residential recovery facility is discrimination.

Steve Polin is an attorney who specializes in fair housing rights of providers of sober living and sober housing. Polin pointed to a joint statement from the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development that sets forth guidelines for sober living, and that sober living homes do not preempt local zoning. However, local zoning “cannot be applied in an unreasonable manner,” Polin said.

“A ‘reasonable accommodation’ is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces,” the HUD-DOJ statement reads. “The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to refuse to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ to rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. Even if a zoning ordinance imposes on group homes the same restrictions that it imposes on housing for other groups of unrelated persons, a local government may be required, in individual cases and when requested to do so, to grant a reasonable accommodation to a group home for persons with disabilities. What constitutes a reasonable accommodation is a case-by-case determination based on an individualized assessment.”

But the city can refuse to make accommodations under certain circumstances. If the accommodations would “impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the local government or it would fundamentally alter the local government’s zoning scheme,” or “if there is no disability-related need for the requested accommodation because there is no relationship between the requested accommodation and the disabilities of the residents.”

Polin said a major factor in whether the city can enforce code violations on Grace and Gratitude is whether the facility is certified by FARR, which indicates Grace and Gratitude applied for certification in May, thought that process has not been completed. While he could not comment on the particular situation with Grace and Gratitude, Polin said whether a facility has FARR certification does have a bearing on what can be required by a governmental entity.

“If an operator is certified, I think there are considerations the city would have to give them,” Polin said. “If they get certified, that’s something the city needs to take into consideration.”

While federal law does not require local governments to adopt laws to address reasonable accommodations for sober homes, “DOJ and HUD nevertheless strongly encourage local governments to adopt formal procedures for identifying and processing reasonable accommodation requests and provide training for government officials and staff as to application of the procedures,” the joint federal statement said.

Forstrom said that in order to come into compliance with city code, Grace and Gratitude would have to have a building inspection, a fire marshal inspection, and a code enforcement inspection. Green would need to comply with all applicable local, state, or federal and fire safety standards and furnish proof of appropriate county, state, or federal licensure, as applicable, before issuance of a local business tax receipt by the city.

“I am not saying it’s not allowed in the city,” Bach said of Grace and Gratitude. “But he needs to follow what I think are minor rules to keep people safe.”

“I believe that the efforts of Mr. Green highlight the need for adequate facilities, especially for those seeking to overcome personal challenges,” City Manager Dale Martin told the News-Leader. “Nonetheless, it is imperative that appropriate regulations and procedures are followed to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of those in need and those on the periphery of such facilities.”

Grace and Gratitude has a hearing in front of the Code Enforcement & Appeals Board at 5:30 p.m., Oct. 1, in City Hall. If that board votes to uphold the violations facing the houses, Blyth said, he and Green are prepared to appeal that decision, and take further legal action.

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On a weekend morning, about 20 people gather in the common room of one of the houses being used as facilities for Henry Green’s Grace and Gratitude Sober Living. They say they are only a small fraction of the people who would come to talk about Green and the difference he and his program have made in their lives. Some ask that their identity be protected to avoid the stigma so often associated with those in recovery in a small community. The house is by no means luxurious. Some areas have no air conditioning. There are no private rooms, and bathrooms have more than one toilet. Everything, including pots and pans and bed linens, are community property. But everyone who speaks is grateful to be there.

They have come to Green from the hospital, from jail, from the homes of their families. Many have come from treatment facilities and halfway houses in other areas where they say the environment is not conducive to sober living.

“I came here from jail and drug court,” Dustin said.

“If I went back to Callahan, I would go back to the same people and routines I was in. I knew I couldn’t go back to where I was.” Misty agreed. “I came from (a treatment facility in Jacksonville) where if you wanted to use, you could just walk right out on the street. I wanted to stay away from there.”

Oliver said he came to Grace and Gratitude after trying outpatient programs in Jacksonville. He said it is the only recovery facility that allows him to be close to his children. “If it wasn’t for this house, I’d have to move or go to Jacksonville. I’m fortunate this program was here. It’s the only one on the island.”

“I was in jail a while, then in a hospital psych ward for a while,” Brittany said. “I was in some places in Jacksonville, but when I came here, I was welcomed with open arms, and now I’m doing good for the first time.” She described the process of being extradited to New York following a trip to her probation officer, and how Green and others with Grace and Gratitude supported her and her family throughout the process, including contacting the court in New York, enabling her to come back to Fernandina Beach.

Dustin, since being at Grace and Gratitude, has started his own business, as has Misty and Stewart. Stewart said he came to Green through Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare “because I had no other options.” Since then, he and Misty have stayed clean and sober, secured a vehicle, joined a church and reopened their drywall business. He is mending relationships with his family. Stewart and Misty are engaged and are planning a “recovery wedding.”

“Beyond my wildest dreams, they say, and it’s true,” Stewart said. 

Residents spoke of the routine Green requires, the discipline that is often absent from the life of an addict. “He creates opportunities for a better life,” James said. “There is nowhere like this.”

Asked where they would have gone if Green’s program was not there when they began recovery, residents say they would be homeless, in jail or dead. Asked where they would go if Grace and Gratitude closed, they say they would be “devastated.” 

“It would be a different pandemic” one addict says. “People would suffer and die,” says someone else.  “We would be like a family separated.”

“People have an impression of how we are,” Robert said. “And, if it weren’t for Mr. Green, those ideas would be justified. We would be thieves, we would be a bad influence on the neighborhood.”