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Women: NW Miami-Dade sober home is unhealthy, unsanitary

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MIAMI-DADE, Fla. – A cry for help into the "Call Christina" hotline from some residents of a sober home being operated out of a single family home in northwest Miami-Dade has led to a county inspection of the property.

The homeowner is facing a laundry list of violations, citations, and liens dating back to 2009. That said, there is no state oversight when it comes to monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of sober homes.

View: Photos county inspectors took at property
Web Extra: No State Oversight

THE CRY FOR HELP

Aida Mendez and Michelle Martinez told Local 10 News Investigator Christina Vazquez they wanted help in improving the living conditions at United In Recovery, Inc. owned by Willie Gamble.

County property records show the sober home facility is run out of a home owned by Valentina and Juan De Leon.

Martinez showed Local 10 News cellphone pictures of what appeared to be a ceiling leak and several beds stacked in one room. They also complained about roaches and a lack of oversight by managers.

According to Gamble, an average of eight to 12 women reside at the house. The women said most of them pay $500 a month in rent. Gamble confirmed that amount, but said sometimes he doesn't charge people.

"What this is, it's a sober-living facility," Gamble told Vazquez, "People, I didn't call them they called me. Maybe they spent their money on drugs and alcohol. Maybe they couldn't manage their money. And what I do in turn I offer them a space until they get themselves better. Those two ladies that you spoke to they could have left on numerous occasions but they didn't want to. What they want to do is 'slanderize' my name. They want to make me look bad. But here we get them to church, we get them to their meetings and this type of place helped me."

Some of the neighbors told Local 10 News they wanted to know if the operation was legal.

According to Gamble, "Look up chemical dependency rights, look up Fair Housing Act, look up the disability rights. OK, these are federally mandated."

Miami-Dade County regulators said it doesn't quite work that way, at least from a zoning and permitting perspective.

"We also have been receiving calls in the last year of these individuals moving into these residences," said Rick Roig, division director for the Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources.

HISTORY OF CODE ENFORCEMENT VIOLATIONS

The Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources provided a log of violations and citations already in place.

It included unauthorized use in a single family residential district, operating a rooming house without first obtaining a public hearing and working without a permit when the property was converted from a single family home to multi-family use.

What the department is looking at is whether what is happening at the property meets zoning requirements and whether any work performed on the house followed the proper permitting procedure.

Roig has been keeping detailed tabs on two other properties owned by De Leon at 1145 Northwest 151st St. and 15101 Northwest Tenth Court.

"We in the county are sympathetic that there is a community need to be able to provide that type of facilities, sober or recovery type uses. But the code doesn't allow those to be taking place in a single family residence where down the block you got kids running around, close to schools, and so in the code those are directed towards a more density packed zone like a multi-family type residential RU3 or above. In the case of a rooming house the minimum requirement is a RU3. And so the property has been cited for an authorized use under an RU1, a single family zone, because he's running an operation that typically is being conducted out of a RU3."

Then there is what Roig calls "life safety issues" of the "work without permit, the modification of that single family to be able to support the additional inhabitants that are occupying that structure. You also have to bring in the life support such as additional water, heaters, and washing machines and refrigerators, all that impacts the support system, electrical, and requires permits and none of the properties since 2006 have any of those permits been obtained."

SNAPSHOT:

14670 Northwest 16th Drive
Case Opened: 4/13/2009
Lien Amount as of 3/31/2015: $86,056.74

1145 Northwest 151st St.
Case Opened: 7/1/2011
Lien Amount as of 3/31/2015: $121,474.23

15101 Northwest Tenth Court
Case Opened: 4/16/2012
Lien Amount as of 3/31/2015 $32,089.63

While at the property Local 10 News spotted at least 11 women on site. There were also some arguments that erupted between residents.

The county may be looking at the property in terms of code enforcement, but when it comes to evaluating if this is a well-run program.

"Currently at this stage the question is, who regulates a sober home, the answer is, no one," said John Lehman, president of Florida Association of Recovery Residences. "That is one of the real challenges we have right now."

LACK OF STATE OVERSIGHT

Local 10 News played some of the raw video for Lehman to get his take.

"The first thing that concerned me about the video was the number of people that I saw. I don't know how many of those people that are wandering around that property actually live in that space, but if it's anything more than six I think it's too many. I have heard now many operators attempt to hide under the protection of FHA and ADA and may not be what's happening here but it certainly smells that way to me and whenever I hear that whenever my antennae gets triggered and begins to vibrate, that generally is an indication that there is activity going on in that house, and failure for other activities ... that the operator doesn't want anybody to know about."

In the vacuum of state guidance and oversight FARR has developed a standards system to evaluate sober homes for operators who voluntarily seek their certification.

"The thing that stands out most to me is that it's dysfunctional," said Lehman. "Whether or not Mr. Gamble is operating a program where his heart is in the right place or not, what he definitely has there is great deal of dysfunction."

WEB VIDEO: About FARR

Right now there is pending state legislation designed to ensure sober homes are safe. It would allow operators to voluntarily get certified with a shift toward prohibiting certain referrals if not certified by the July of 2016.

FARR already certifies recovery residences and hopes to be selected as the certifying organization.

Web Extra: Read HB21 filed by Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton
Web Extra: Read SB326 - Companion bill in the Senate for HB21
WEB VIDEO: About HB21, SB326

As soon as the call came into the "Call Christina" hotline, Vazquez reached out to Miami-Dade County. Days later the homeowner agreed to meet Roig in his office and a site visit was scheduled.

For the first time De Leon gave inspectors access to the property for an inspection. Inspectors found more than 60 beds at the three homes he owns.

At 14670 Northwest 16th Drive they found 21 beds, five cooking areas and five beds.

Property records list the home as a five-bedroom, three-bath zoned single family.

"I don't want to see anybody being thrown out in the street," said Roig, "And if we have to bring in the county resources to include the Homeless Trust to be able to relocate these individuals that is always available to us."

A county spokeswoman confirmed that representatives from the Homeless Trust visited the property late last week.

Several woman spoke on camera to defend Willie Gamble and his operation. The living conditions may not be spectacular they say, bit it's better than living on the streets.

"People need help," said Lehman. "There needs to be quality service providers available to provide that help. We need to work together. Communities and organizations need to work together to make certain that there are quality providers available and that the bad operators that are taking advantage of this population are shut down."

WEB VIDEO: The Need

According to an August 2014 report county regulators explained, "Florida law lacks a definition for "sober house," in contract to other types of facilities that provide "treatment services" related to substance abuse...In light of this lack of state guidance and oversight, some local governments have come up with their own regulations for these types of facilities. However, some of these local regulations are facing legal challenges primarily from providers (i.e. Delray Beach, Florida and Newport Beach, California).

WEB VIDEO: FARR on United In Recovery
WEB VIDEO: Zoning Challenges

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