DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Whitney Tower, 56, a scion of the Whitney, Vanderbilt and Drexel fortunes, squandered his trust fund and sold family treasures to support a $1,000-a-day heroin habit before landing in a tough-love facility near here seven years ago and never leaving. “If I went back to New York I’d be dead in two weeks,” he said.
In some ways Mr. Tower, who spent three decades in and out of treatment, remains a creature of his pedigree. He favors foppish linen suits and drops names of the fast crowd he once ran with.
But his social life these days is dinner at home with sober friends who have settled here in what experts consider the recovery capital of America. He is studying addiction counseling, and he works as an unpaid intern at a local drug treatment center.
Delray Beach, a funky outpost of sobriety between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, is the epicenter of the country’s largest and most vibrant recovery community, with scores of halfway houses, more than 5,000 people at 12-step meetings each week, recovery radio shows, a recovery motorcycle club and a coffeehouse that boasts its own therapy group.
Recovery communities are springing up outside the walls of rehab centers for alumni seeking the safety in numbers.
The prototype community is in Minnesota, near the Hazelden clinic. But recovering substance abusers are also sinking roots in Arizona, Southern California and the Gold Coast of Florida — places with more sizzle and better weather. Lindsay Lohan spoke hopefully of finding eternal rehab in the Wasatch mountains of Utah, near Provo, where some graduates of her latest drug treatment center have moved.
Delray Beach is in a class by itself, experts say, because of its compact geography and critical mass of recovering addicts who cross paths daily in the shops and bistros along Atlantic Avenue. They fly beneath the radar of tourists oblivious to telltale signs of addiction, like unapologetic chain smoking. But they see one another everywhere:
On the patio at Starbucks, reading the “Big Book,” the bible of Alcoholics Anonymous. At the Longhorn restaurant, pushing tables together for Friday night gatherings. At the Crossroads Club, the headquarters for 115 12-step meetings a week, where gossip is of romance between recovering addicts, overdoses, suicides and friends who have successfully moved back home.
“This community is one big helping hand that is always open,” said Mike Devane, a new halfway house owner, who lost his job and family in New Jersey before coming south five years ago to get sober.
This society-within-a-society gets mixed reviews from addiction experts. A few find it insular and cultish. “Cutting off contact with the outside world, is that a sign of mental health?” asked Stanton Peele, a psychologist and author who challenges much conventional wisdom in the field.
But many more experts note that a recovery community like Delray Beach may provide a promising environment for certain addicts. While such communities have not been studied, there is consensus that substance abuse is a chronic and relapsing disease, comparable to diabetes or high blood pressure. It thus requires permanent lifestyle changes that may be easier in a new environment. Relapse rates range from 90 percent, for short treatment programs with no follow-up care, to 40 percent when treatment is comprehensive and long-lasting.
And even then, new research shows that sustained addiction can lead to changes in the brain that make relapse all but inevitable, experts say. Success, for those entrenched addicts, is measured by longer and more productive periods of sobriety and shorter and less damaging periods of substance abuse.
A. Thomas McLellan, director of the Treatment Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, said the way to judge the wisdom of retreating to a bubble of sobriety like Delray Beach was to ask: “Where were they before? This may be their best available option.”
Harold Jonas, 52, kicked a heroin habit two decades ago in this beachfront city, far from his native Philadelphia, and decided to stay. He married a fellow addict, raised a family, earned a doctorate and opened a halfway house for substance abusers making the transition from residential care to independent living.
Steadily, Dr. Jonas and his wife, Dawn, expanded their cottage industry. They organized an association of halfway house owners and opened KoffeeOkee, the coffeehouse-karaoke bar.
Mr. Devane was among 20 Delray Beach residents who gathered at the cafe one recent night for a weekly counseling session. One “normie” — their word for the 65,000 year-round town folk — wandered in unawares and was allowed to stay. First-timers sat at the periphery of the circle, avoiding eye contact with others.
But Jeannie Saros, a onetime addict and now a therapist who sees private patients in a cottage behind KoffeeOkee, soon had everyone sharing closely guarded secrets. One admitted resuming a “sick relationship” with a drug-abusing lover. Another, although sober, said she continued to steal from friends. Mr. Devane, his voice a whisper, confessed to having been a bad father.
Many here have lost custody of their children. Among them is Jennifer Boeth Whipple, 53, a journalist who arrived in the clutches of alcoholism in 1998. Ms. Whipple said she “took to heart” — during her third effort at rehabilitation — “that some people have to change their lives completely to maintain sobriety.”
So she stuck around, following a carefully phased program, known as the Florida Model, from residential treatment to a halfway house and a “recovery job” at Home Depot. Eventually she bought a condominium and worked for an art dealer.
For six years, Ms. Whipple said, she “felt very safe here, surrounded by people who’d been through what I’d been through” — detoxing in the same roach-infested apartments, cycling through recovery centers familiar to New Yorkers, like Silver Hill or Four Winds.
Then a year ago, “after I’d gotten my sea legs,” Ms. Whipple returned to New York City, where her son lives with his father. All is well, she said, except she is lonely. She talks to her friends often. “At times,” Ms. Whipple said, “Florida still beckons.”
It is difficult to count the recovery population here because only residential treatment beds are licensed by the state. As of Nov. 1, almost 3,500 people were being treated as in-patients in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties in southeastern Florida, by far the largest concentration in the state.
Halfway houses, by contrast, are unregulated. But Dr. Jonas said there were about 1,200 halfway house beds in this city alone. With rent averaging $175 a week, these businesses generate almost $11 million a year.
Low-wage jobs for people in recovery are plentiful in a tourist economy. Recovering addicts make smoothies at Ben and Jerry’s, and sell housewares at Crate and Barrel. Among the current worker bees are an executive chef and a professional baseball player, both busing tables.
“Just about every business in town has at least one of us, whether they know it or not,” said Susan Miller, sober for 13 years and executive director of the Crossroads Club, command central for newcomers seeking meetings, housing, transportation — for those with too many D.W.I.’s to drive — and legal help.
Typically modest bungalows, halfway houses provide structure and supervision — curfews, random urine tests, the requirement that tenants have jobs and attend meetings. Still, unscrupulous owners prey on tenants by “flipping” the same bed, insisting on several months’ rent up front, then evicting someone for rules violations and re-renting the room. Some owners also put rule-breakers out on the curb, with no alternative housing, which can lead to crime and an outcry from neighborhood homeowners.
A movement to ban halfway houses in residential neighborhoods has so far been unsuccessful, with courts ruling that such restrictions violate the Americans with Disability Act. The association of halfway-house owners is trying self-regulation, and its members are required to find a placement for an evicted tenant, often at a discounted rate in a motel Dr. Jonas owns.
A bigger concern, said Detective Gary Martin in the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, is drug overdoses — 218 in 2006 and 241 during the first nine months of 2007. “I consider close to one overdose every 36 hours a big problem,” Detective Martin said.
The overdoses highlight the high risk of relapse. Indeed, even owners of halfway houses fall off the wagon, leaving tenants like Katrina W., 28, clean for a few months of a heroin and crack cocaine addition, suddenly in charge. One resident, testing Katrina’s limits, came home smoking crack and blew smoke in her face. Katrina got the resident out without incident and managed to hold on to her fragile sobriety.
Sobriety is the tightrope addicts walk, even years into recovery. Claire Condon arrived here at age 19, a six-foot beauty withered to 100 pounds by heroin. But in Delray Beach she got sober, got a modeling job, a “normie” boyfriend, a condominium and two dogs.
Then, a year ago, at age 27, everything unraveled. Ms. Condon battled depression, smoked marijuana to take the edge off her misery, then upgraded to cocaine and OxyContin. She text messaged friends from recovery, urging them to stay away.
“I didn’t want to be a tornado in their lives,” she said. “But every time they heard someone died, they thought it was me.”
Ms. Condon resumed treatment, however, and returned to her regular meetings at the Crossroads Club. Back at Square 1, she still hopes to leave here one day. She misses the mountains and the seasons of Connecticut.
“That’s my goal,” Ms. Condon said. “But what pulls on my heart is the people here, the connections I made at a time of desperation.”
Terry Aguayo contributed reporting from Miami.