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The History of Sober Living

Sober living homes have increased in popularity over the past decade. As a transitional housing arrangement, sober living homes provide recovering substance users a place where they can exercise their independence, relearn necessary skills for work and social participation, and engage in healthy activities and gatherings while being protected from the temptation of drug use. Today, these homes provide people a safe space to live once they’ve successfully completed detox and rehab but are still unprepared to resume their everyday life. These institutions have come a long way from what they once were, and they’ve become something of a necessity for individuals in early sobriety.

The Roots of Sober Living Houses

A look into the history of sober living houses (or SLHs) shows that they started out in the 1800’s. As early as 1830, groups like the YMCA, YWCA, and the Salvation Army had their own versions of SLHs. These ‘dry hotels’, as they were called, sprung up as a part of the Temperance Movement which was an organized effort to limit or outlaw the use of alcohol. At the time, these SLH’s were operated and managed by landlords with their own personal convictions against the use of alcohol. In effect, they imposed strict prohibition of these substances within their properties, forcing tenants into sobriety. During the time, these operators would also require tenants to attend religious services.

Changes After World War II

When war veterans started returning home after the Second World War, living conditions became especially cramped and limited throughout metropolitan areas. This also caused more widespread alcohol use, which prompted the development of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. In Los Angeles, Al-Anon graduates opened what they called ‘twelfth step’ housing, which would provide recovering alcoholics a safe place to live while they reached the end of their treatment program. These houses would reduce the exposure to the temptation of alcohol while encouraging tenants to attend AA meetings. By the 1960s, there were several tens of these houses in the Los Angeles area alone.

A Growing Problem

By the 1970s, homelessness had increased significantly. There were numerous factors that contributed to this issue, but most experts attribute the problem to decreased rooming houses and single room occupancy hotels that had often been used as SLHs. This was compounded by the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals without affording those displaced with community-based living arrangements. The result was a boom in homelessness, punctuated by an increase in both substance and alcohol abuse. At the time, it was estimated that 40% of those living in homelessness suffered from alcoholism, while a conservative estimate of 15% suffered from substance use disorder. In some areas like Northern California, 69.1% of homeless people lived with substance use disorder. With numerous halfway houses closing down came the development of what were called Oxford Houses. That is, individuals who benefits from halfway houses would continue their residency by paying rent and utilities. Together with this, they adapted a democratic style of managing the household, allowing each tenant a say in the way that things were run.

Many of those who participated in these Oxford Houses were particularly satisfied with their arrangements, which made them a popular style of housing for recovering substance users and alcoholics. What made them particularly effective was the fact that they emphasized the importance of peer support and shared leadership. And because they were financially independent of other organizations, individuals who lived in these Oxford Houses were generally free from the direction, instruction, and regulations of outside forces. Another interesting fact is that while these individuals were not required to attend AA meetings, an impressive 76% would visit weekly AA meetings nonetheless, showing a high adherence and dedication to sober living principles within the shared space.

Sober Living Houses Today

Today, sober living houses have come a long way from the ‘dry hotels’ of the 1830’s. One of the obvious reasons why these early facilities would have never succeeded in encouraging sobriety is because of the lack of focus on social involvement. Back then, individuals would be required to attend religious meetings, while landlords were strict with rental payments. They would also evict individuals as soon as they were found to relapse or violate the housing’s rules. Presently however, sober living houses place strong emphasis on the involvement of each tenant. While Al-Anon attendance is encouraged, it’s not required. What these homes do require to some degree is each individual’s involvement in the home’s democracy. In fact, some SLH coalitions in California require evidence of resident involvement when it comes to managing operations within the home. The structure of programs within a sober living house can be described as relaxed, but effective nonetheless. Individuals are to abide by a given curfew and they’re given their own set of chores to ensure that the home is kept clean and orderly. Of course, the division of labor is discussed as a group to ensure that everyone is satisfied with their designated task. Other than all of that, SLHs today also incorporate group therapy meetings into the program schedule. These meetings bring all the members of the home together and provide an opportunity for individuals to touch base, establish deeper connections, and help keep relationships within the home harmonious and beneficial to each member of the small community.

Why Are Sober Living Houses Effective?

There are numerous reasons why the modern template of the sober living house has become so widespread. These houses have shown significant success in supporting individuals in early sobriety, assisting them towards living independently while kicking the habit. And although they’re usually endorsed for early sobriety, they’ve been found to be effective in any phase of substance abuse recovery as well as in the rehabilitation of individuals leaving incarceration. Much of the reason why these living arrangements are so effective is because of their emphasis on social involvement and democracy. This set up means that individual opinions and ideas are cherished and valued, which in turn empowers each tenant in knowing that they’re a part of the operation.

Another reason why these houses are so successful is because of the presence of an in-house manager. These officers aren’t enrolled in the treatment program themselves, but they take the responsibility of a counselor and guide, offering tenants sound advice when needed. They provide the structure of the general program, and ensure that regulations and rules are adhered to. Interestingly, relapse in a sober living home doesn’t always necessarily equate to eviction. Modern research teaches us that relapse is highly common when dealing with substance use disorder because of the way that illicit substance and alcohol can change the way that a person thinks.

Unlike the dry hotels of old, sober living houses tend to look upon relapse as a part of the recovery process. Of course, there are stringent rules and regulations in place, but because individuals who experience relapse aren’t punished for it, they become far more open to undergoing the steps in place to resolve the issue. Finally, there’s the independence. These sober living homes don’t impose strict schedules or requirements on their tenants, and instead showcase that every individual is responsible for the way they want to live. Individuals living in these homes can come and go as they please. They can attend work or school, and they’re encouraged to care for themselves by cooking their own meals and managing their routines. For the most part, these homes require only that individuals stay clean and arrive home within a given curfew, depending on the rules of the specific home. Other than that however, individuals can enjoy relative freedom while benefiting from the mutual desire for sobriety that each individual in the home demonstrates.

A Transition to Independent Sobriety

Sober living houses have come a long way from the strict, imposing dry hotels and lodges that existed several centuries past. And with particular emphasis on the democratic contribution and social involvement of each member, these houses ensure that every individual feels their importance and worth as a part of the small community. Today, sober living houses are seen as a must especially for individuals in the early phases of their sobriety. Providing opportunities for socialization, training for job acquisition, and life skill learning and reinforcement all within a structured, drug and alcohol-free environment, these SLHs provide individuals the necessary support and guidance to help them face the outside world independently without having to risk the sobriety they’ve worked hard to achieve.


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