PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Recovery houses are places where people can go to get clean and sober.
There are an estimated 500 of them statewide, but a KDKA investigation found not all of them are equal.READ MORE: N95 Masks Expected To Start Hitting Store Shelves By End Of January
In the throes of a heroin addiction, Jim Pschirer vowed to quit and checked himself into a recovery house in Munhall to wean himself off the drug along with other recovering addicts.
Within a month’s time, he died of an overdose.
“He was a good kid. He tried to get sober off and on for years,” Pschirer’s mother Andrea Zack said.
Pschirer’s family knows the pull of addiction is strong, but they also blame the recovery house itself. It’s one of many unlicensed and uninspected, but not illegal, recovery houses.
Unlike rehab centers, they’re not subject to any state or local regulations.
The Pschirer family accuses the operator of the Munhall home, Rosalind Sugarmann, of having no rules or supervision and allowing addicts to drink and use drugs.
“I’ve told her I blame her negligence for my brother’s death,” Amanda Pschirer said.
However, Sugarmann rejects that claim.
“When people accuse me of being responsible for this kid’s death, that’s ridiculous and it hurts me,” said Sugarmann.
Sugarmann herself is a recovering heroin addict who previously ran an addiction clinic in Uniontown. The FBI raided it in 2014, and in 2017 Sugarmann was sentenced to prison and probation after pleading guilty to health care fraud and illegally dispensing suboxone.
When asked why she’s now back in this line of work, Sugarmann responded, “Because it’s what God wants me to do.”
In addition to the recovery house in Munhall, which she opened shortly after her release from prison, Sugarmann also runs a recovery house for female addicts in Homestead.
She said the homes fill a pressing need brought on by the opioid crisis by providing quiet, safe environments for recovery. However, some say they’re anything but.
KDKA Investigates found records showing police responded to calls for things like fights, burglaries and overdoses at the women’s recovery house in Homestead nine times this year and 12 times to the Munhall home.
Homestead Borough Manager Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson said Sugarmann never told them she was operating a recovery house in the borough. But since these homes are unlicensed, there’s no law saying she has to.
“We didn’t know anything about it until the neighbors came down and complained, and at that point, there was nothing we could do,” said McCarthy-Johnson.
Sugarmann acknowledges addicts fresh out of rehab or jail sometimes step out of line.
“We had an overdose here, yes. We called police. We had a fight here, yes. We called,” said Sugarmann.
Our KDKA investigation also found that among these homes, some are more structured than others.
Some recovery houses have strict curfews, regular drug testing and require anyone testing positive for drugs or alcohol to leave. However, Sugarmann said she allows everyone to stay at the recovery houses she runs, regardless of what happens.READ MORE: Pa. Revenue Dept. Offers Free Tax Filing Online
“They come home drunk and I’m supposed to say, ‘Get out?’ No, I’m not doing it,” said Sugarmann.
The Pschirer family said they recovered Jim’s phone with texts confirming he used heroin on nearly a daily basis and often stayed out all night but was never asked to leave the home.
His sister believes Sugarmann allowed an “anything goes” environment, allowing people struggling with addiction to continue their downward descent.
“Anyone who is in the beginning of trying to get clean who goes into an environment like that has no chance,” Amanda Pschirer said.
However, Sugarmann defends allegations that she fails to provide a safe, calm environment for recovering addicts by saying their families are supposed to do that too.
“They couldn’t stop him from using. How am I supposed to stop him from using? This disease kills people. People who help people aren’t killing people,” Sugarmann said.
Meanwhile, in Carrick, the numbers clearly show the sheer toll the opioid crisis has taken there.
Carrick has logged 302 deadly overdoses in five years. That’s the most out of any area in the region, and there are currently close to a dozen recovery houses there.
A recovering addict who once lived in one of them said he and other residents would routinely get high and drunk, and there were no consequences, as long as the home’s operator got their rent money.
“I remember it was just around the time my rent was due and I went out on a binge and it didn’t matter because all they wanted was my rent,” he said.
Pittsburgh City Councilman Anthony Coghill, who represents Carrick and some of the city’s other southern neighborhoods, said he gets complaints about the same houses time and again.
Coghill said, “I get many calls from neighbors not only in Carrick but also in Brookline about recovery homes. There have been multiple police calls to the same residences. There’s no oversight.”
While Coghill agrees there’s a pressing need for recovery houses, he wants them to be licensed, registered and inspected.
“I think the neighbors in these residential areas, particularly Carrick, need to know that if someone is running a recovery house, they meet certain standards,” said Coghill.
Leo Hutchinson runs a half-dozen of the recovery houses in Carrick. He said it’s paramount for the places to have standards and rules.
Chief among them, he said, is that people struggling with addiction who test positive or even appear to be high must leave.
Hutchinson said, “The basic rule is if you can’t pass a drug test, you cannot be on the premises.”
Hutchinson heads The Western Pennsylvania Alliance of Recovery Residences, whose members regulate themselves and certify houses that maintain standards and pass inspections.
He said police rarely visit certified houses and residents in those homes work by day and are quiet by night.
“You get a lot of flack from neighbors every time you want to open up one of these houses. But once we open, if it’s done right, we’re better neighbors than other neighbors on the street. We take care of our neighbors,” said Hutchinson.
West PARR is now lobbying the state to take over the inspection and certification of all recovery houses statewide.MORE NEWS: Kid Rock To Make Summer Tour Stop At Star Lake
Hutchinson said, “It should have been done years ago. It needs to be done. There’s too many of these places where the operators are making money, exploiting people in early recovery, and they’re not really doing anything to actually help these people.”