Choosing an Effective Sober House

Riverbank House provides a fully scheduled long term drug and alcohol rehab that will accommodate the 90 day minimum suggested by the CDC, followed by transitional options. But where do sober houses fit as a path to recovery? The following article gives one perspective.

Do Sober Houses Work?

An Approach to Choosing a Sober House

Once you’ve made the decision to investigate sober living options as an extension of long term residential drug and alcohol treatment that has lasted a minimum of 90 days, as recommended by the Center for Disease Control ( ), it can be helpful to recognize that too often we are fueled by hurried desperation as we try to find placement for the addict we love. If we can approach sober house placement as informed and empowered consumers there is less risk that desperation will cloud our judgment and certainly less risk that the addiction industry will take advantage of our vulnerability.

As we begin our investigation into sober living options there is no need to relinquish any advantage to the operators of sober housing. Sober housing is a booming industry that has created a buyer’s market for the consumer, and, realistically, we hold the advantage as we comparison shop. A quick illustration of the buyer’s market: there are at least 300 sober homes in Massachusetts, at least 160 sober homes in Connecticut, and at least dozens of sober houses in Vermont. Through word of mouth, advertisement, referral, or voluntary sober housing registries, finding a sober house isn’t the challenge. Acquiring the tools to assess quality sober housing takes some education, personal investigation, and a consumer’s mindset.

1. Adopt an Attitude of Empowerment

Addiction is an industry. We are its consumers. Yes, addiction is a chronic disease and yes it has often left us feeling helpless and powerless and quick to defer to medical professionals. But now, past the acute care stage of treatment, we are no longer the passive client or passive family. We are active consumers and advocates. ALWAYS ask yourself and the addict you love how a particular sober house will benefit the addict in his/her recovery. Benefit to the person in recovery – rather than benefit to the person in ownership — should always drive the conversation, the decision making, and the direction a family takes in choosing or continuing with a sober house.

2. Do Preliminary Research Online

  • With the sober house address in hand, check the Registry of Deeds in the county and state in which the home is located. Is the house in foreclosure? Are there liens on the property?
  • With address in hand, check the state’s sex offender registry. Are any sex offenders registered at that address? With the owner’s full name at hand, check to see if he/she is registered, perhaps at a home address that would be different from the sober house.
  • With the exact name of the sober house at hand, check the state and county court websites for any evidence of pending or resolved lawsuits connected to the sober house or its owner.
  • Check the city or town website in which the sober house is located. Are any violation of local ordinance on record? In some towns, if violations aren’t published online, a phone call might be required to access this information.

3. Interview the Owner/Director, in Person or Over the Phone

  • Does your organization have a Mission Statement or Philosophy?
  • Where do the majority of your residents come from? Detox, acute care, 28 day program, long-term treatment?
  • Is there an admissions assessment that gauges readiness for the level of independence allowed at the sober house?
  • Does the house have any kind of orientation process?
  • Who owns the property and how many other sober houses are owned?
  • How is the house staffed? Is staff available to the residents 24/7?
  • Do you have written job descriptions for staff that clearly outline the scope of responsibilities?
  • What percentage of active management or staff are in recovery?
  • (If the person you are interviewing discloses that he/she is in recovery) How have you stayed clean and sober?
  • If active management and staff are in recovery, what arrangements have been put in place should management or staff relapse?
  • Are drug tests random or scheduled?
  • Are house managers and directors also tested, regardless of whether or not they are in recovery?
  • What is your alcohol and drug free policy? Zero-tolerance or second chances?
  • Is there a written policy regarding relapse?

It might feel like overkill to ask if an alcohol and drug free house has a written policy about drug or alcohol use, but assume nothing. Sober houses vary widely in their policies and responses to relapse or possession. For instance, a Massachusetts chain of sober homes known as “Gianna’s House” folded and reopened under new management as Gateway House. Same address but widely divergent drug and alcohol policies implemented by the former and current managers.

Tiffany Jonas, former director at Gianna’s House, understands the struggles of recovery; a recovering heroin addict, she first became associated with Gianna’s House when she entered as a resident in 2009. As program director, Jonas took the approach of giving residents more privileges – such as overnight passes and fewer curfew restrictions – as they made progress, she said. She conducted drug screenings, but testing positive for drugs or alcohol did not necessarily mean a resident was thrown out.

“You’re housing a bunch of drug addicts; people are going to relapse,” Jonas said. “I would do whatever I felt would help them.” She goes on to explain that recovery is a very individualized process, which is hard for people outside the recovery community to understand. She believes relapse is part of the recovery process and throwing someone out for a single misstep could send them on a fatal binge.

On the other hand, with an eye toward community rather than the individual, Corey Pina, Executive Director of what is now Gateway House, runs the houses with a zero-tolerance policy, he said, because it encourages a safe, substance-free environment for everyone.

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Regardless of whether the house you are investigating has a “relapse happens” or a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding the use of alcohol and drugs, it still makes sense to ask the following:

  • Do you have an ongoing relationship with a medical detox facility and will you help a resident enter detox in the case of relapse?
  • Do you have a written re-entry policy after relapse?
  • Is the house equipped with a defibrillator? Are staff trained in CPR? Is the house supplied with naloxone (brand name Narcan), an opioid antagonist that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose?

Questions to ask about the more traditional tenant/landlord arrangement:

  • What is the rent? (Make sure you have confirmation on whether the answer is a weekly or monthly figure.)
  • Do you require a security deposit? What other fees are required and which are non-refundable? (For example, are there unexpected upfront fees such as a one-time facilities fee, an admissions processing fee, a background check fee?)
  • What is the rent increase policy or schedule?
  • Are utilities included? Is food?
  • What is the maximum occupancy per bedroom and do changes in occupancy affect rent?
  • Are there length of stay minimums or maximums?

Questions to ask about house policies, which should all be in writing:

  • Does the house have a non-aggression, anti-violence policy?
  • What are the visitation policies?
  • Does the house allow for overnight leaves? For instance, can residents be away overnight to visit with family?
  • Does the house have a Good Neighbor Policy?
  • Does the house take a position on medication? What policies or restrictions are in place for medication? For example, does the house allow assisted addiction treatment (methadone maintenance), psychotropic medications, prescription medication, over-the-counter medications?
  • How are house rules documented and distributed? Are they posted?

If applicable to your situation:

  • Does the house take a position on or have policies to address co-occurring disorders? For example, mental illness, PTSD, behavioral addictions such as gambling?
  • Does the house have a personal vehicle policy?
  • What are your policies regarding communication with family? Is staff available to talk with family?

4. Make an on-site visit of the facility

If, after your internet research and interview, you are still interested in this particular sober house option, arrange for an on-site tour of the facility. NEVER sign an agreement with a sober house without first visiting the property.

While visual proof is often the most reliable, do not hesitate to ask about what you do not see. Things to look for and questions to ask yourself on-site:

  • Does the neighborhood appear to be safe? For instance, is there a liquor store across the street?
  • Is the address clearly visible at both the front and rear entrance to the property (for emergency personnel)?
  • Is the house clean and in a good state of repair?
  • Is there ample common space in which all resident can gather?
  • Are results of local building and fire code inspections posted?
  • Are emergency procedures posted throughout the house?
  • Is there a working smoke detector in every bedroom and on every level?
  • Is there one working bathroom for every six residents?
  • Does the house have a first aid kit, a carbon monoxide detector, and fire extinguishers?
  • Does the house have X-box? Internet?
  • Does the house have laundry facilities?

The three quirky investigations:

  • Make a cell phone call from the house on the potential tenant’s phone. Coverage by cell phone carriers varies widely. A lack of carrier cell coverage at the house means limited communications with family or the expense of a new phone plan.
  • Look in the refrigerator. I don’t know what you will find there, but a refrigerator can tell you a lot about the community and cooperation within a house. Anything green should be edible. Milk should be dated sometime this year. The temperature controls should be adequate. A six pack of non-alcoholic beer should be cause for concern. The odor of dead fish should get your attention. Don’t ask to look in the refrigerator; just do it.
  • Who buys the toilet paper? Is there toilet paper?

And finally, the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, in its March 2006

Fact Sheet titled “Alcohol- and Drug-Free Housing (Sober Living)” recommends that “There is a rental agreement for each resident, signed by the owner, representative, or landlord, and the resident, that shows clearly the amount of any deposit, refund policy, rent payment schedule, policy on return of rent if a person leaves, and housekeeping duties.”

Just on the Issue of Toilet Paper Alone

Does this list make you feel like you would come across as an obsessive pain in the butt? As too pushy? As too picky? As an irritation? When we are dealing with the addiction industry it is easy slip back into a passive mode and to forget that benefit to the person in recovery – rather than benefit to the person in ownership — should always drive the conversation, the decision making, and the direction a family takes in choosing or continuing with a sober house.

And keep in mind that you are looking at a group home for alcoholics and addicts in recovery. Just on the issue of toilet paper alone I can promise you that residents have you beat in terms of being pushy, picky, irritating, vocal, and obsessive about any pain in their butt. If the house management can’t handle a visit from a pushy, picky, irritating, obsessive pain in the tush, then the management in this particular sober house lacks the skill to deal fulltime with multiple addicts in early recovery. And that’s what you set out to investigate.

Republished with permission from “When We Love An Addict: The Cost of Addiction”

Copyright 2014 Kay Ryan




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