When Thomas McCue moved into a “sober home” in St. Paul in 2017, his parents felt hopeful that he was finally getting his life back on track after years of substance abuse and depression.
The 23-year-old had just completed intensive residential treatment and was preparing to return to college to study art and business. Staff at the sober home promised to help McCue with a supportive and “highly structured” environment that would be drug-free, his parents said.
Five months later, McCue died of a fatal injection of heroin that was delivered to the front porch of the house on St. Clair Avenue. His body wasn’t found until hours later because no staff or other residents were present.
“This home broke every single promise they made,” said his mother, Vasiliki Canotas, who lives in Manchester, N.H.
The young man’s death — which is now the subject of a lawsuit — has deepened long-running concerns about the safety and reliability of sober homes, which have grown in numbers in the past decade in response to the opioid epidemic. The homes serve a vital role in helping people with substance use disorders return to mainstream life; yet they are unlicensed and largely unregulated by state health and social service agencies.
Many of these privately owned homes market themselves as drug-free, therapeutic environments, but many provide little more than a bed in a shared room and limited on-site staff, according to advocates and counselors for people with substance use disorders. Tenants are frequently required to waive their rights as renters, which means they can be evicted on a moment’s notice, even for minor transgressions.
Frank Kallstrom, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor in Woodbury, said he feels “pangs of guilt” every time he refers a client to a sober home. “I absolutely hate it, because they are often at their biggest risk of relapse in those homes,” Kallstrom said. “In 99 out of 100 cases, they will be going to a place with almost no supervision and no support.”
No one knows exactly how many sober homes exist in Minnesota, because they are unlicensed and do not require certification. The Minnesota Association of Sober Homes (MASH), an industry group, maintains safety and ethical guidelines for its members, which operate 152 houses. But the group has opposed the sort of state licensing standards and inspections that apply to other facilities that house vulnerable adults.
“When it comes to overdoses, it’s this fentanyl-laced heroin that’s killing nearly 80,000 people a year,” said John Curtiss, founder and vice chairman of MASH. “I don’t think licensing will help.”
Nowhere to call home
Erik Wiltscheck, 51, spent Christmas coping with the double traumas of witnessing the murder of two boys and then, weeks later, being evicted from his sober home in south Minneapolis.
On the morning of Dec. 1, Wiltscheck was walking home from a store when he heard gunshots and two boys screaming. He saw the boys running out the front door of his neighbor’s home, coats on and backpacks in hand. Next, he saw a man emerge from the home with a gun and repeatedly shoot the two boys, ages 8 and 11, as they attempted to flee in the snow. Police determined that the boys were shot by their father after their mother was fatally shot inside the home, in a highly publicized triple-murder suicide.
Wiltscheck began to vomit uncontrollably on the sidewalk and was so overwhelmed with anxiety that he had to be rushed to the hospital. “I kept seeing those boys trying to crawl away in the snow, while being shot at point-blank,” he said. “It was like a horror film replaying again and again.”
Weeks later, Wiltscheck got another shock. The manager of the sober home where he lived informed him that his urine sample had tested positive for opiates. Wiltscheck, who has been sober for 3 ½ years, has medical documents showing that he had been prescribed Percocet, a painkiller, for the onset of kidney stones.
Even so, staff at the sober home gave Wiltscheck less than 48 hours to pack his belongings and leave, he said.
With nowhere to call home, he rented a room at a Super 8 hotel in Brooklyn Center — the same hotel where four years ago he shot up heroin during all-night binges. His clothing and other possessions lay in bags around the hotel room, and on Christmas Eve he dumped a bottle of loose change on his bed and began counting out enough coins for a sandwich.
Within hours after arriving at the hotel, a stranger in the lobby asked him if he wanted to “spin a bowl,” slang for smoking methamphetamine. “Temptations are all around me,” he said, peering through the curtains of his first-floor hotel room. “I still can’t believe the sober home turned their back on me during the worst moment of my life.”
Treatment professionals and former residents say sudden evictions are common in Twin Cities-area sober homes, and they often occur when residents have just suffered relapses and are at their most vulnerable.
Tony Grahn said he was given “less than 20 minutes” to leave a sober home in south Minneapolis last fall after he returned to the home inebriated, a violation of house rules.
Lacking other options, Grahn, a 40-year-old construction worker, pitched a tent at a once-sprawling homeless encampment in south Minneapolis, where he had easy access to drugs. He stayed at the camp for about two months and nearly died of a heroin overdose.
Grahn said some residents drank alcohol in their rooms at the sober home. And instead of therapy or counseling, he said, they were offered once-a-month Bible study sessions. “These places skate underneath the laws,” said Grahn, who is now sober and working again after undergoing treatment.
Canotas, an attorney, keeps several folders swollen with documents related to her son’s fatal overdose. Among the papers are letters to the Minnesota departments of Health and Human Services, as well as to the state Attorney General’s Office, urging them to investigate the home where her son stayed, St. Paul Sober Living. All the agencies declined to investigate, citing a lack of authority. She and her husband also filed a lawsuit last month in Ramsey County District Court against the home and its owner.
The parents allege that the facility promised to closely monitor McCue’s medications, but they say that after his death, St. Paul police officers found 127 pills in his room, including unused prescription medications that he was supposed to have taken to manage his depression and other mental health problems. They say the facility also failed to ensure that McCue received other prescribed medications.
“Our son might be alive today had there been the oversight that had been promised,” Canotas said.
A lawyer for St. Paul Sober Living said the home denies the parents’ allegations and would respond to them in court.
“St. Paul Sober Living and its staff cared deeply for Tommy McCue and understand how difficult it must be for his family,” Michael Tomsche, the attorney, said in a written statement.
On the afternoon of their son’s funeral, Canotas and her husband, Mark McCue, returned home and found an envelope from Augsburg University announcing that Thomas had been awarded an academic scholarship. “It’s heartbreaking because [the scholarship] was something that would have pleased him so much to see,” Canotas said.
A scholarship fund has been established in Thomas McCue’s name for students who apply for the university’s mental health and addiction recovery program.