Group Home Nurtures Sobriety, Friendships
Listen to Joseph Shapiro's report.
"There is no reason to believe that society as a whole had the responsibility to provide long-term housing within a protected environment for the alcoholic and drug addict. However, there is every reason to believe that recovering alcoholics and drug addicts can do for themselves that which society as a whole has no responsibility to do for them."
That need for Housing First inspired an NPR News special reporting project, on-air and online. The Housing First coverage that begins today will run through Summer 2003.
The project's first five radio reports will air Tuesdays on All Things Considered through August 13. NPR's Joseph Shapiro profiles a program that first gives a home -- and then a second chance -- to people recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction.
In Shreveport, La., in fall 1999, William Owens was working the front desk at a detox center when David Dixon's mother brought him in. David was high on cocaine; David's small son Matthew was hanging onto his leg, crying. William calmed the boy with crayons and colored paper -- and from that moment, William says, his friendship with David grew. "You just hit it off with some people great," says William. "We're just as different as daylight and dark" -- William is small, wiry and 61, while David is 35, fit and handsome -- "but very, very close friends."
William understands David's demons. Drinking and using drugs for 40 years had landed William in jails and mental hospitals. Then in January 2000 he moved into a Shreveport group home called Oxford House-Southfield, and his life turned around.
Oxford House is one of the most successful recovery programs ever. The first Oxford House opened in 1975 in Maryland; a group of recovering alcoholics came up with the idea for a group home with no paid staff, where residents make every decision and fund the house by paying modest rent. Today there are nearly 900 Oxford Houses, started with the same 29-page manual that the first group wrote.
When David moved into Oxford House-Southfield a few months after William, "It wasn't what I expected," David says, "It was homey. It just felt like home." Unlike other recovery homes, at Oxford House there is no two- or three-month time limit. Residents can stay in an Oxford House the rest of their lives as long as they pay the rent -- and don't relapse. Williams reads aloud from the house rules: "Any resident who drinks or uses drugs must be immediately expelled." Then he elaborates in his own words: "Thirty minutes to get out, and they know that when they move in here. And I don't care how close or how many tears, they know the deal."
That part of the deal became clear last January, after David wound up at what he calls "this sleazy little hotel, locked up and using" crack cocaine. When David's boss found him and brought him back to the house, William and the other residents were tearful but resolute. The men convened an emergency meeting and voted to kick David out. Then they went back to David's room and helped him pack.
When Oxford House residents evict a friend, "they know they are kicking him out to a dangerous place," Shapiro says. "Still, one housemate's relapse threatens the recovery of all. William could not let David put him or the other men in danger."
After getting kicked out, David moved from place to place, spending a few nights at his mother's house, a few more at his girlfriend's townhouse. "Everyone who knows David thinks he'd be safer back at Oxford House," Shapiro says, "and that every day he's not, he puts himself at risk." But David stayed clean for three months, which qualified him to apply to return. Then when another house resident relapsed and was kicked out, David moved back in, in early June. He painted the walls of his room, put down fresh carpet -- and thanked the men for giving him a second chance.
But one week later, David stayed out late, and called William from a pay phone: "I'm using again," he confessed. William told David what they both knew: that David had to come back, pack, and get out.
As of today, Shapiro reports, David "is clean again and trying hard to stay that way." Though he'd still like to return to Oxford House, William says it's too soon to even talk about it. But recently, Shapiro says, "David drove over, just to say hello to William and the other men who kicked him out."
- Oxford House
The official Web site explains the philosophy behind the group and offers a national directory of houses.