“You have Plenty of Time to Get Right with God.” So reads a small billboard atop a parked truck along the solitary road into Prescott from the big city 100 miles southeast of town. Roll down the windows, take a big gulp of clean, high desert air and you might start to believe it – this could be just the place to get right with the big guy.
Or maybe, just to get clean.
Prescott is only an hour-and-a-half drive from the sprawling, brown expanse of Greater Phoenix but feels a world away, with wildflower-sprinkled fields, cool breezes and a street full of old cowboy saloons called Whiskey Row. The townspeople – many transplants from Maricopa County – seem to mosey through life, relaxed and unburdened by the toils of whatever sin city they left behind. Lingering on a park bench in the grassy town square, one can easily imagine the clock on top of the old granite Yavapai County Courthouse ticking a bit slower than a typical timepiece. Here, there’s all the time in the world.
An air of healing has lingered about this area for a long time, starting at the turn of the 20th century when a few pioneer doctors ventured west in search of a more arid climate to treat tuberculosis. A few decades later, the Fort Whipple military base began treating disabled veterans and victims of gas warfare in World Wars I and II. Today, the place is in the business of treating something no less devastating: addiction.
Over the past decade or so, the community of less than 42,000 people has exploded with drug addiction recovery centers. Recent counts by the city attorney have tallied anywhere from 100 to 200 facilities currently in operation – some treat one particular vice or the gamut of addictions including illicit drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex and eating disorders, while others are simply residences billed as sober living homes or halfway houses in which addicts live together while pursuing sobriety. As addiction rates skyrocket across the nation, the call for better, more effective treatment grows louder. But not everyone is thrilled that Prescott has stepped up to answer.
Some complain the recovering addicts moving into their neighborhoods are bad neighbors – they’re rude and loud at all hours; and what happens if they relapse? On the other side, legitimate operators are concerned that some fly-by-night operations are spoiling the well – addicts aren’t getting proper help, so they fail in their recovery and ultimately return to drugs, or worse.
Invitingly sloganed “Everybody’s Hometown,” Prescott prides itself on being an inclusive community, a haven for those who need a helping hand. But as Mainstreet USA becomes Arizona’s rehab capital, with a growing profile on the national drug recovery circuit, the residents of this close-knit town are beginning to wonder how they got here and if they should continue to open their doors to the region’s growing community of addicts.
It’s a nice place to be,” says Dayton Turberville, executive director of Prescott House, when asked why Prescott is a good place to get sober. “There’s a healing here.” And he should know. Turberville came to Prescott House from Southern California in 1998 seeking treatment for his alcoholism. Eighteen years later, he now runs the place.
Tucked away on a residential street lined with big shady trees, Prescott House consists of a handful of tidy old wooden houses framed with big pots of flowers. Save for the deep hum of the cicadas overhead, it’s surprisingly quiet outside considering about 25 men recovering from addiction live here.
Tall, gravel-voiced and straight-shooting, Turberville explains how he got into this line of work: “I was working at Whataburger for almost a year [after leaving the facility] and my friend that I was in Prescott House with got a job at West Yavapai Guidance Clinic,” which offers services to people dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues. “And he told me, ‘It’s much better than what you’re doing now.’”
With a year of sobriety under his belt, Turberville got a job helping fellow addicts. He worked his way up, becoming a certified therapist, earning a master’s degree in counseling and eventually becoming the clinical director at Prescott House.
“It’s better than flipping a hamburger and wearing a hat, although there’s nothing wrong with that,” Turberville says of working in the recovery business. Plus, “I like alcoholics and drug addicts, but I like the ones in recovery more.” Most business is referral-based, he says, by doctors or word of mouth. As Prescott House is a long-term residential facility, clients stay longer than 30 days and most live on campus for about six months and continue treatment there for a few months after moving out.
Founded in 1988, Prescott House is one of the few state-licensed residential facilities in the area. It has a consulting MD and psychiatrist on staff as well as a registered nurse and a team of therapists. Arizona requires licensing for inpatient addiction treatment centers where residents live and receive health services, such as psychological treatment and substance abuse counseling, as well as for places like assisted-living facilities for adults with mental and behavioral disabilities. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services Division of Licensing Services, there are 49 licensed residential facilities in Prescott and neighboring Prescott Valley. On the other hand, sober living homes or halfway houses, which only provide the residential component but no health services, do not need to be licensed and are therefore largely unregulated.
Turberville describes the sober living boom as kind of a perfect storm. “It just bloomed between 2008 and 2010,” he says, suggesting the Great Recession may have had something to do with it. “When the real estate market fell out, it seemed like a lot of people saw this as an opportunity that they could lease a house for not a lot of money and charge a good bit [to house people in recovery].”
Also, he says, “the Internet has grown and grown and grown…so a website can reach millions of people.” (Google “best sober living homes” and you’ll likely see Prescott among the top searches.) Finally, “Prescott [is] a wonderful town to live in,” he says. “[So] a lot of people went into business.”
David Sheridan, president of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences, notes that people with addiction issues are considered protected under the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. “So to have a group of six people that want to live together sober, and the reason they’re living together is not to get cheap housing but to stay sober, then they have a federal right to do that,” he says. In other words, cities cannot tell people with disabilities, addiction or otherwise, where they can and cannot live; as long as you’re not providing on-site health care services, you are well within your rights to open a home to a handful of people who want to live together for one reason or another.
In Prescott, most of the addiction treatment programs follow the so-called Florida Model. Sheridan says that name has been genericized to reference a recovery program with separate residential and treatment components. Basically, clients receive medical and psychological treatment at a non-residential state-licensed facility, which can bill insurance, and then live off campus in a sober living home, for which they pay out of pocket. This arrangement differs from places like Prescott House, a one-stop shop where clients both live and receive treatment.
Sober living homes, Sheridan says, have been around in one capacity or another since the 1920s. Even “before the founding of AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] in the ’30s, there were always places where people could go who had trouble, mostly with alcohol back then,” he says. “It hasn’t been a concern until they’ve moved into nicer neighborhoods. A lot of the public backlash is when [sober living homes] start being in nicer neighborhoods.”
They do not know how to handle their trash,” complains a Prescott resident at a City Hall meeting. The woman says she lives across from a sober living home – a fact she and her husband knew before moving in, but which failed to prepare them for the unkempt front yard, continuous cycle of new residents and employees, and the neighbors’ seeming inability to follow a garbage collection schedule.
Hers were among several public comments made during a monthly meeting of the Prescott Mayor’s Ad Hoc Committee on Structured Sober Living Homes. Mayor Harry Oberg formed the committee in March 2016 to establish a dialogue between residents and the sober living industry.
“In the committee we hear the good, the bad and the ugly,” committee chairman Glenn Martin says. “Neighbors who have been affected negatively – noise, cursing, smoking, packs of people walking up and down the street, [generally] not being good neighbors.” Sober living homes need to adopt good-neighbor policies with rules for curfew, cleanliness, etc., he says, in order to maintain harmony in the community.
“With HB 2107, we can make that part of the law,” Martin says. The bill, signed into law by Governor Doug Ducey earlier this year, was introduced by Arizona Representative Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, to give individual cities more power to regulate the sober living environments in their communities. Specifically, the law will require operators of sober living homes to register with the city and allow communities to establish ordinances enumerating health and safety standards for homes such as fire safety plans, square footage requirements and supervision standards.
City Attorney Jon Paladini says Prescott City Council is in the process of drafting an ordinance to go into effect next year. The first hurdle, he says, is to figure out just how many homes operate in Prescott, because in order to regulate the industry, “we have to know who they are and where they are.” To be counted, facilities will have to obtain both a business license and a group home license from the city.
The ordinance will also advocate for house managers to meet certain standards like getting CPR certified, learning crisis prevention and intervention, and understanding the disease model of addiction. Though these rules seem obvious, Paladini says “if these types of standards are achieved, it will raise the bar.” Unfortunately, he says, there are currently some incompetent managers who aren’t even clearing these low hurdles.
“The blind leading the blind,” is how another Prescott resident put it at the committee meeting while voicing her concerns about sober living house managers – who are, more often than not, recovering addicts themselves – being in charge of a group of people only recently emerged from the trenches of addiction.
Whether it warrants concern or not, the reality of addicts leading addicts points to another reason the local addiction recovery industry has grown exponentially. The cycle goes like this: an addict successfully gets clean in Prescott; they stick around because “it’s a great place to be”; they get a job working in a sober living home or treatment facility because it’s a good way to give back to the industry that helped them; and perhaps, at the end of the tunnel, there’s a chance to strike out on their own – a way of taking charge of their own lives, which they came perilously close to losing to drugs. Pretty soon, the place gets crowded.
Don Elliott, house manager at Recovery in the Pines, says he has priceless experience no “normie” could match – addicted to opiates, he came to this very place to get clean two years ago. “I’ve been that guy,” he says of the 11 men living under his supervision. “I know when they’re BS-ing me.”
Standing under a kitschy 1960s-era sign for the Cascade Motel promising air conditioning and “color cable TV,” Elliott – a soft-spoken, buttoned-up guy in a polo shirt – says the most important part of his job is keeping his residents accountable. The Christian-focused Recovery in the Pines converted the old motel into tiny apartments for clients, who commit to staying at least six months and receive treatment at Recovery in the Pines’ clinic three miles up the road.
Accountability is huge at Recovery in the Pines. CEO Doug Dolan and founder Albert Black – both in prolonged recovery themselves – emphasize it constantly. “These young men are irresponsible, lazy, entitled [when they enter treatment],” Black says, “What we don’t want to do is therapy them to death… We teach them how to dress, how to talk, how to get a job.” Dolan says a lot of problems arise after getting out of a treatment program or sober living home where residents are coddled. “The problem is they don’t know how to manage their life outside,” he says.
So they run their program with military-like precision. Like good Marines, clients rise at 5:30 a.m. every day and make their single beds with ruler-straight creases. They follow a strict schedule consisting of daily worship, volunteering in the community, therapy and strenuous exercise like jiu-jitsu and CrossFit.
“It’s No. 1 on my list,” Recovery in the Pines resident Phil says of the rigid structure. (PHOENIX magazine agreed not to use last names to maintain patient privacy.) A big Teddy bear of a 29-year-old, Phil says he failed in his recovery from heroin addiction at another sober living home in Phoenix due to a lack of oversight. “All they required was you go to a meeting – ‘Just check these boxes and you can stay here,’” he says.
At Recovery in the Pines, he’s learning how to lead a normal life – “how to cook, how to clean, how to be a good roommate, how to be a good husband.” And as for actually liking all that CrossFit? “My wife recently commented on my arms,” he says with a sheepish smile. “I came here a wad of cookie dough.”
Being a house manager is a tough gig, according to Elliott: “I have seen people jump right into [it] and fail.” Sometimes with less than a year of sobriety to their names, he says new house managers can buckle under the stress and demands of supervising other recovering addicts and run the risk of relapsing themselves.
Mo Michael, who runs Compass Recovery Center – an outpatient treatment facility with an off-site sober living component – with her husband, says it could have happened to her. She probably started working as a house manager too quickly after being treated for gambling addiction. “I was a year sober when I started house managing, and I wasn’t equipped then,” she says. “What’s happening is people think once they get sober, they can do this [six months in]. They’re not equipped.”
Dr. John Kelly, director of the Recovery Research Institute with Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, says in general a minimum of two years of sobriety is recommended for house managers. That said, there’s nothing wrong with addicts leading addicts. “There’s a sense of universality,” he says. “They see other people similar to themselves that are a little bit ahead of them… it can be very powerful.”
Hundreds of names are scribbled in black Sharpie on the back walls and ceiling of the main building at Prescott House. Some are crimped and tiny, others exuberantly large and accompanied by a rousing, can-do phrase of encouragement to those who might come next. Each signature represents the 950 or so men who have “graduated” into a sober life here over the past 28 years. Among them is Harry Kottler, class of 2002, who now works as the business manager. “You can get sober anywhere,” he says, “but this is a good place for it.”
Based on anecdotal evidence, Kottler believes Prescott to be the leading per capita recovery town in the world. A popular local saying, he says, is “Half the town’s in recovery and the other half ought to be.” And with anecdotal evidence being the best we can rely on when determining the effectiveness of treatment since addiction is a lifelong struggle, there’s something to be said for surrounding oneself with people who are similiarly afflicted.
“It’s a good place for recovery because it’s everywhere,” he adds. If there’s a self-fulfilling aspect to the statement, he doesn’t seem aware of it.
Back at the patio of the Cascade Motel, Doug Dolan of Recovery in the Pines agrees with that particular assessment of Prescott: “It’s built a name for itself… there’s a lot of recovery here.” The young men under his care are here today because programs elsewhere didn’t work for them.
Jacob, 23, says he’s here to get off drugs, of course, but also to build a new life for himself. “They help you determine what you want to be.”
Phil, the Teddy bear, feels connected to nature here much more than he did in Phoenix. “I feel like God speaks to me more here than anywhere else,” he says.
And Estevan, five months sober at 25, says he’s not discouraged by the steady stream of addicts who have come to this place before and surely will after him. In fact, he’s uplifted. “It gives me hope to see what we can be in a short amount of time,” he says.
Like many in Prescott attempting to right themselves, he clings to a simple formula – follow the path most traveled.