At 53-years-old, Danny is lying in hospice dying of cirrhosis of the liver. At one point he had six years without a drink, but a few years ago he had once again started and now is paying the ultimate price. Bloated and yellow, he painfully recounts his tale. Not long after he went back to drinking his liver began shutting down. No one would approve him for a transplant, but his brother agreed to give part of his liver to Danny. The surgery had gone fine, but the alcoholic obsession was too strong and he picked up the drink again. Now his brother is so angry he won’t even visit as Danny lies dying.
But two men do show up to visit with Danny, 54-year-old Rick and 62-year-old Bill. It seems the three of them got sober about the same time and had met while living in an “Oxford House” on James’s Island 10 years ago. Rick drove in from Norfolk where he works as a mechanic on ships. While Bill, retired from the military, owns a local home remodeling business. All three of them talked fondly about their time at the house. A few days later Danny died, and left this Earth with no fanfare. Besides Rick and Bill everyone else had long since tired of dealing with him.
Curious about people showing such loyalty, I looked up Oxford House and found an amazing group of people running an organization that defies logic. In 1975 there was a halfway house in Maryland that was closing down and the 13 residents were going to be without a place to stay. So they banded together and started paying the rent and the bills. One of their members named Paul Malloy, who was an administrator for Amtrak before he got fired for drinking, set about forming a democratic government within the house. It worked so well that the members eventually opened another house and then another. The tradition of house members and alumni opening new Oxford Houses has continued, and as of this writing, 44 years later, there are 2,682 houses open.
Local and state chapters have formed and a national group headed by Malloy helps keep it all together. Each new house that opens is a rental house, rented by the members founding it at market rates from a local landlord.
A set of traditions has evolved that keeps the houses running. Each house is independent or autonomous as they call it. The individual house has it’s own government made up of residents who have decided they want to get and stay sober. Each house is self-supporting and self-run, fully responsible for its own bills and its own rules. No member of a house is ever asked to leave without cause. Only a dismissal vote by the other members of the house for drinking or using, for disruptive behavior or for not paying their share of the bills can compel someone to have to leave.
Each house’s main goal is helping those that want to get and stay sober and is governed by the residents themselves serving as officers for terms limited to six months maximum. Those offices include chore coordinator, secretary, comptroller, treasurer, president and chapter housing representative. Oxford Houses also maintain independence from any outside organizations, remaining fully responsible for their own bills. And those that leave Oxford Houses in good standing are encouraged to support those coming behind them, serving by giving friendship and support to the effort. Now pardon me for my skepticism, but I always wonder when I hear a tale that sounds like the inmates are running the asylum. But I was able to attend a weekly house meeting at a local Oxford House and see how it works firsthand.
The first thing that struck me was the levity and camaraderie of the six house members. They took the meeting and the house business seriously, but it was clear that they were all primarily concerned about the well-being of others in the house. The house president called the meeting to order and the secretary read the “Old Business” discussed during the last meeting, followed by the number of AA, NA or other recovery meetings that each member had attended. That particular house required incoming members to attend a meeting a day for their first 90 days and then at least four meetings a week thereafter. The chore coordinator announced that everyone had done their chores properly that week – there were no “fines” for neglected chores. (In that house fines run from $20 to $50 for neglecting your chore and members rotate through the chore list weekly.) The comptroller reported on the rent payments each member had made. (Rent in this particular house is $110 per week, covering house rent, utilities, cable, internet and staples such as coffee, detergent, etc.) Then the treasurer gave a summary of the bills that were paid and those coming due and the chapter housing representative gave a summary of the last Charleston Chapter Meeting. The house president kept the meeting running and the Secretary kept detailed notes.
The house had a bed open and three potential applicants were interviewing for a spot in the house. They came in one at a time with an application that they had filled out. After being interviewed by the members, they were each told they would be called and informed of the outcome of the interview. The members then discussed each one of the applicants and unanimously chose the one they thought would be the best fit. (It takes an affirmative vote of 80% to get into an Oxford House.)
Then, after a bathroom and smoke break, the members of the house reconvened for “caring and sharing.” Each member shared where he was at that week in his recovery, what he was struggling with and what things had gone well. They then broke up the meeting by standing in a circle and saying a prayer.
I enjoyed hanging around with the men after the meeting; ranging in age from 23 to 59 they all were serious about being better people and moving forward with life. It turns out that there are currently 77 Oxford Houses in South Carolina, with 13 of them in Charleston. Seven of Charleston’s are men’s houses and six are women’s houses. I was given the name and number of the local Oxford House Outreach worker, a woman named Taylor Redler.
Redler is a bundle of enthusiasm and energy who has been sober in a local Oxford House for 18 months. She is helping to open new houses and the new energy has shown in it’s results. Charleston has had seven Oxford Houses open for over 20 years, but last year another opened and so far this year five more opened.
“Until I threw myself into service with Oxford House, I continued to struggle with my own addiction” Redler said. “To help newcomers, to show them how Oxford House works, and to see recovery working in people’s lives is amazing. I love working with the others in the chapter to open new houses. Each new house becomes a home where the newcomer can find a safe place to begin to get their life together. I love watching people come in, learn and get inspired. Our Chapter is so healthy – I expect that we will be able to open at least another ten houses over the next two years. But we can’t grow too quickly – people have to have time to learn the Oxford House model and each house has to have all it needs to be fully self-run and self-supporting.”
“I am most excited that we have been able to open our first ‘Mommy and Me’ house for women with children,” Redler said. “This is an Oxford House that not only supports six adult women but gives a clean, safe and healthy environment for up to three children to learn and grow in.” (This fills a huge need as Charleston Center has a program for pregnant women to stay sober, but until now once they give birth there was nowhere for them to go.)
Redler continued, “I want the community to know that each Oxford House is a safe place to send your daughter or son to. They are all good houses in good locations that become home to the men and women who live there.”
I was able to talk with Malloy, the founder of Oxford House by telephone. “South Carolina is a great example of houses being open long term – many there have been going well over 20 years. I think most of our success comes from the fact that we have no time limits on how long a person can stay at an Oxford House, and that each house is self run with everyone participating. Officers are limited to six-month terms so everyone has the opportunity to learn to act responsibly. This allows them to see that life sober is so much better than being drunk or drugged up.”
“We now have over 21,000 beds for men and women,” Malloy continued. “These houses have been great for people coming out of treatment centers and jail – most times when someone gets released the only one that wants to talk to them is their drug dealer. When we first started, out of the 13 of us 11 were alcoholics. But with the increased drug use, today 70% of our residents are drug addicts. The current age range of residents is 17 to 91 years old.”
I could easily quadruple the size of this article, plus there are all the individual stories of people I met. I spoke with a couple of landlords that rent their houses as Oxford House – they were both very happy as rent is always paid on time and the house and yard are tended to every week. Perhaps we can take a more in depth look at Oxford House in the future, but for the time being I find it amazing that such a strong organization built on supporting itself is quietly contributing so much to our community.
This article series, written the first and third week of each month, is meant to educate the community about addiction in general and the Opioid Crisis in specific that is affecting communities nationwide. We are hopeful that this series will make a difference. When appropriate the names will be changed of those the articles feature. The author welcomes inquiries or shared experiences, and can be reached at David@PhoenixSC.org.