A 'sober home' overdose death sheds light on the shady side of Florida's drug rehab industry

Man overdosed in home meant to be a sober space

CAPE CORAL, Fla - Group homes for recovering drug addicts called sober homes are popping up all over Southwest Florida, but a lack of regulation has led to destruction in an industry that is supposed to help addicts heal.  

Jeremy Gift chose to live in a sober home to avoid the temptations of addiction. He moved into a home in Cape Coral which was advertised online as the "Integrity house of Cape Coral. 

Gift would later learn the home was never a sober house, and the woman running the place never had permission to turn the home into one. 

Sadly, he would never make it out of that sober home. Not alive.

Nearly two weeks before he died, a Cape Coral Police officer showed up at the home to inform Gift and the others what was going on. 

"I'm just trying to explain to you what's going on. You guys got had!" said Officer Luna to two recovering drug addicts who are finding out the Cape Coral home they've been living in isn't a ‘sober house’, which is like a halfway house for addicts fresh out of rehab.

"That's what I was trying to tell him, because, you know, obviously he's trying to recover. He's trying to help himself!" said Officer Luna.

To live there they signed documents stating it was the "Integrity House of Cape Coral", and they had to remain sober.

Gift showed the documents to the officer.

"The closest thing we have to a lease is what we sign when we come in from there [the rehab clinic]. That's all we have," said Gift.

The men then meet the homeowner.  "I don't know what the hell is going on in my house, man!  I was like [expletive] man,” said Keith Dalla Costa.

Jennifer Feriola, the woman he rented the house to, never had permission to sublease.  When Four in Your Corner confronted her, she claimed she had no idea what was going on.

Fox 4 asked Feriola if she knew about the contracts people were signing to live there.  "I wasn't here for any of that," said Feriola.

She's a former director at a drug treatment residence in Fort Myers, and referred to Gift as a friend.

"I'll be out of here on Friday the very latest," said Jeremy.  But he never made it out of the house.

Twelve days later, a roommate found him unresponsive, laying naked across his bed, according to a Cape Coral police report. 

"Nobody was there, you know. Somebody could've found him, but they didn't for God knows how long; a day, two days, because it wasn't a legitimate halfway house," said Brett, a close friend of Gift's.

He says no one from the home contacted Gift's family after his death, they found out on Facebook. 

"It's kind of disappointing he went somewhere that wasn't authorized. They didn't know what they were doing and this is the result," said Brett.

By law, sober homes are not required to be certified. And if they aren't, state guidelines on safety and drug use prevention are not mandatory.

"He came to my house the week prior, trying to get in," said Rob Raab, Operations Director at Nextep Drug Counseling and Recovery Residences.

He had to turn Gift away because he couldn't meet the house guidelines.  Raab manages nine certified sober homes in Cape Coral and Fort Myers.

He believes thousands fall through the cracks each year, because despite laws that prevent rehab treatment centers from referring patients to uncertified homes, Raab says it happens at an alarming rate. 

“Right here in Lee County we have treatment providers, we have a 72-bed private treatment center that's breaking the law," said Raab.

Florida's drug treatment industry is a billion-dollar business, and sober homes are popping up in neighborhoods all over Florida.

But a lack of regulation has led to many shady operators, where allegations of rape, human trafficking, and illegal drug use run rampant.

West Palm Beach County has become ground zero for this problem.

"These deaths are often preventable because these deaths are caused by an environment that, instead of being supportive and drug free, is more like a flop house where relapse is encouraged because that's where the money is," said State Attorney Dave Aaronberg.

He created a Sober Home Task Force to address fraud in Florida's drug rehab industry.  A bill was recently passed based on their recommendations.  It gives law enforcement officials tools to go after corrupt players at treatment centers, but it still leaves sober homes unregulated. 

"They are still unregulated, uncertified, unregistered," said Aaronberg.

Regulating sober homes is difficult because drug addiction is considered a disability, and federal law protects addicts against any limits on where they can live.

When run properly, sober homes can change lives. 

“I'm an addict and I have an illness that I can't help having, but I can help what I do with it from here on out. I know I'm in the right place to do that," said Kelsey Merena.

Kelsey moved from Chicago to live at a certified Nextep sober house in Fort Myers.  She is one of the lucky ones.

Without laws to go after shady sober home operators, being one of the lucky ones is what some have to hope for.

We asked Brett if he thought Gift is one of the one's that should've made it.

"I don't want to say should've, because again, that's God's plan. But I thought he would.  I thought he would be here," said Brett.

For more information on certified sober homes, click here.

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