What is Sober Living?

By Scott Mc Cann

    Unless you live in, know a friend or family member, or are associated with the field of recovery, the term "Sober Living Home" may be somewhat of an enigma to you. Sober living homes are often mistakenly referred to as a Halfway House, Rehab Home, Recovery Support Home, Boarding Home, Shelter, Hostel, and even in some cases (mostly derogatory) as a "Flop House". While some sober living homes may provide some of these services, most do not.

     Sober living homes are affordable, alcohol and drug free environments that provide a positive place for peer group recovery support.  Sober housing promotes individual recovery by providing an environment that allows the residents to develop individual recovery programs and become self supporting.

     The majority of sober living homes are privately owned and operated by an individual or small partnership. Less than a third are registered as a "Non Profit Organization" registered under United States IRS code 501(c) (3). Most do not receive government subsidies or grants. However, some of the residents may qualify for individual social benefits.

     Quality assurance is achieved and maintained through membership in a sober living coalition or network.  These coalitions and networks proved self-governance and self-regulation through peer reviews and inspections.  Members are required to meet excellent standards in health, safety and management guidelines.  The homes maintain alcohol and drug free environments with resident initiated and maintained recovery support activities.

     None are acute detoxification or treatment centers but several have a referral listing of detoxification hospitals and outpatient treatment centers. This is not to say that you would not find a newly arrived resident in their first 24 to 72 hours of sobriety still shaking, sweating or sleeping off their last drunk or hit of crack.

     The typical sober living home is a single-family residence, duplex or multiunit complex located in a quiet residential neighborhood. The residents are required to follow a strict set of house rules. Violation of the rules can result in assessment of minor financial fines, writing an essay, to immediate ejection from the home.

     The single most common rule is a zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol. This includes normal everyday medicine cabinet items as, mouthwash, cold medicines, and after-shave or food items such as vanilla. Most sober living homes do random or surprise drug and alcohol testing. The use of 52 proof mouthwash (Listerine and Scope, to name a few), 70 proof vanilla, opiate or alcohol based cold medicines will cause a false positive test. Not to mention intoxication if consumed in quantities.

     Other zero tolerance rules include, violence, threats of violence, fighting, harassment, theft, sex on the premises and unexcused absence or violation of curfews.

     Each resident is required to be financially self-supporting, paying their own rent, and purchasing their own food. The residents are required to work, actively seek employment, or be a student enrolled in an accredited academic or trade school. Those who are permanently disabled and on federal, state, or local assistance are required to become involved in service to the home or the community. All residents are required to attend a minimum number of weekly 12 Step meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or Cocaine Anonymous.

     Living is very communal in a sober living home. Depending on the size of the home or unit, the occupancy can range from 6 to 30 residents per home or unit. All residents share a bedroom with at least one other resident. The range of roommates can go from 2 to 10 per room. The later living in barracks style bunk beds. Most sober homes are gender specific. There are very few co-ed sober homes.

     Each resident performs an assigned daily chore around the house. A well-run house is cleaned from top to bottom each day. There are no dirty dishes left in the sink, clothes, or towels lying around. I have personally visited some sober homes, as well as lived in one, and found many of these homes to be cleaner than private residences.

     Rent in a sober living home can range from $250 to $1,450 per month, with the norm ranging form $450 to $750 per month. Location, occupant density, and services provided are the primary factors affecting rents. There are no security deposits, no first and last month, and no credit checks performed. Utilities are included. Many homes allow rent to be paid on a weekly basis. Moreover, many will give a 14 to 21 days grace period to come up with the first month's rent. The only requirement for residency is a desire to stay clean and sober, follow the house rules and pay your rent timely.

     In recent years "boutique" sober living homes have emerged.  Some charging $100,000 and up per month ($3,500 per day) and include personal lifestyle coaches, yoga and fitness trainers, and five star chefs.  The residents are not "rock-stars", but most typically business people and professionals who are familiar with paying $10,000 per night in a New York or London hotel.  Most who reside in these homes are seeking absolute confidentiality and anonymity.  Of those high-end homes I have visited, all had three requirements in common with lower cost homes.  A zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol, attendance at 12-step meetings and sharing a room with at least one other addict/alcoholic.

     There is one major difference between living in a sober living home and sharing an apartment with another person. The residents of the sober living home are not considered tenants and as such are not protected under tenants' rights laws. Hence, a resident can be ejected on a moment's notice without the due process of eviction procedures.

     Many homes also provide probation/parole housing for non-violent alcohol and drug offenders. In California, under "Proposition 36" the courts sentence individuals from 90 days to a year in a sober living home, in place of jail. Most of the homes work directly with the courts, defense attorneys and district attorneys and have approved monitoring programs in place. A few of the more expensive sober living homes have full time attorneys on their staff to assist their residents.

     There is no accurate count of the number of sober living homes or available bed space in the United States and Canada. However, some of the statistics I have read, place the estimated total number of beds in the 45,000 to 60,000 range. The bed availability is not evenly distributed between men and women. It is estimated that fewer than 20% of the beds are for women, a substantially lower number for mothers with children, and virtually none for fathers with children.

     There is no clear-cut answer for the disproportionate allocation of beds between men and women. There are, however, several conjectures including. A lower demand for sober living for women because women have a better network of family and friends to find a place to live. Women in recovery typically have greater access to individual state, local, and federal assistance for independent living.

     Considering the majority of the sober living homes are privately owned and operated. Women entrepreneurs have greater difficulty in obtaining financing for what is perceived to be a risky venture. Women in recovery have "higher maintenance" requirements, thus demanding more resources. Men can live independently in a communal (a.k.a. caged) environment better than women can.

     I know that it is tempting to look at the rents per bed, per month and the number of beds per home and come to the conclusion that sober living must be a gold mine for the taking. Before you rush off and set up your own sober living own, you might want to take a closer look at the facts.

Rental Income: Yes the potential gross rental income is high, the reality is uncollected rents can run as high as 40%.

Turnover: The typical stay for a resident is 90 days to a year, with very few staying more than one year. Your are constantly marketing and looking for new residents.

Utilities: You pay for the utilities. As an example, if you have 10-12 adult residents living in a home, the utilities may be running up to 20 hours a day. This includes; lights, showers, laundry (gas, water & electricity), television (s), ovens and stoves, etc.

Maintenance: Even with the very best of residents, the heavier use and traffic requires more frequent cleaning, painting and repairs. Appliances wear out quicker and require frequent replacement. In addition, you will get a few bad residents that will cause damage to the property. A run down sober living home will not attract new residents.

Labor: Sober living is labor intensive requiring 24/7 attention. Unless you have a small single unit and plan to live there yourself, you will need to hire a resident manager (s). Many sober living owners have other outside jobs.

Neighbors: For the most part neighbors do not object to the existence of a sober living home in their community. Many don't even know that there is a sober living home on their block. However, it takes only one unenlightened neighbor to shut you down. (See Discrimination against People in Recovery)

Success Rate: Fewer than 50% of new sober living homes started last longer than three years.

     I hope this article has shed some light on sober living homes. My experience living in sober living was very positive. I met many great guys. We shared are experience, strength, and hopes with each other and helped each other stay sober. The disease of addiction however is "cunning, baffling and powerful" and I did see many good men relapse and die from this disease.

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