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What to Look for When Choosing a Sober Living Home

Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S.
Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S.
Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S., is a mental health writer and expert with more than a decade of experience in mental health and substance abuse.
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For many people, one significant obstacle to remaining sober is a lack of stable, drug-free housing. If they have a history of drug and alcohol dependence—especially if they also have a history of incarceration and homelessness—their risk for relapse is much higher without appropriate access to long-term community services that support their recovery.1 This is because living in an environment that is destructive and does not support sobriety can lead to relapse for even the most highly recovery-motivated person.2

choose a safe sober living home
To bridge this gap between the end of formal treatment and long-term recovery, sober living houses (SLH) offer drug- and alcohol-free homes that act as stable housing and a supportive community. SLHs are not funded nor licensed by the government, and because they do not offer formal or clinical substance abuse treatment, they are not typically monitored by state licensing agencies.1 However, in many cases, SLHs emphasize a 12-step model of recovery, so residents of these homes are expected to attend peer support groups in addition to other work and home obligations.2 People who live in these homes can stay as long as they want, but residents are expected to cover their living costs while there.

It is difficult to know how many people currently live in SLHs since they are not formally regulated, but in California (where a large portion of the nation’s SLHs are located), most are associated with either the Sober Living Network (SLN) or California Association of Addiction Recovery Resources (CAARR).

Another option when you’re looking for a drug-free environment is a halfway house, which is a residence where people can live after they have been in a treatment center or in prison and are ready to begin their transition to independent living. As the name suggests, it’s a halfway point between around-the-clock supervision and restrictions and complete independence. In some cases, people who have been in prison may be placed in a halfway house to serve out part or all of their sentence. These residences provide greater freedom than the person’s previous setting, and while they live there, they can focus their time on continued drug and alcohol treatment, job training, and other activities to help them adjust to community living again.2

Though they can be a great resource for people without stable living environments who are trying to stay clean, both halfway houses and SLHs have been plagued by problems over the years. One reason for this is that as government officials are pushed to reduce prison populations, there is a corresponding increase in halfway house populations.3 And although these facilities can provide important assistance to help prisoners re-enter the community, halfway houses sometimes become little more than a source of revenue for their owners.3 With the potential to earn money with every resident, some unscrupulous owners and staff have engaged in unethical and even harmful behavior toward residents, including poor supervision, allowed or encouraged drug use, and violence.3 Unfortunately, SLHs have also been plagued by a variety of problems, from fraud to unsafe environments and disreputable staff. 4

However, since these laws have yet to be passed, it is important for anyone in recovery and their families to research their options and choose carefully among the available facilities.

Red Flag: Claims to Be Free or Will Pay You

Some disreputable SLHs may try to entice residents to move in by offering a free stay or offering to pay their way to the facility. Often, these SLH administrators or owners gather your personal and insurance information and then use it to submit false insurance claims to payers. Sometimes, residents are given a kickback fee to help perpetuate this type of fraud, or to help recruit new residents to do the same.6

In Los Angeles County, researchers found that normal fees for SLHs ranged from $300 to $1,350 a month, with an average cost of $650 a month.7 Knowing this, when you apply to live in an SLH or halfway house, you should be fully informed about all of the fees and charges that you will be responsible for paying. They should be clearly detailed at admission and any refund policies should be disclosed prior to you giving them a dime.8

Red Flag: Rundown or Unsafe Facility

A reputable SLH or halfway house should be well-maintained and have enough space for all of its residents. Don’t go solely by website pictures when choosing a facility, which can be misleading. Ask to take a tour before moving in and try to get former residents’ testimonials about what is was like living there.

Red Flag: Does Not Have Admissions Requirements, Does Not Keep Records

All SLHs and halfway houses should have standard admissions protocols in place to ensure that residents come into the home having proper expectations and similar recovery goals. And while it seems like it should go without saying, all residents who live in SLHs should be in active recovery from a substance use disorder.8 In fact, being drug- and alcohol-free should be one of the primary admissions requirements. Residents should also be able to perform daily activities like bathing, dressing, and eating without assistance. And any co-occurring mental illnesses they may have should be actively managed by a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. Other admissions requirements might be that prospective residents agree to attend a certain number of 12-step meetings every week, regularly attend work or school, and consistently do in household chores.

A harmonious living environment is especially important for people who are in recovery, so residents should be evaluated before being accepted into the home to ensure they will get along with the other residents living there.

Part of running any legitimate business (something a SLH or halfway house should consider itself) is maintaining proper records. Ask if the home you’re touring does so and find out what methods they use to keep them secure.

Red Flag: Does Not Require Abstinence or Regular Drug Testing

The main reason an SLH or halfway house exists is to help residents learn to live everyday life without drugs or alcohol. Therefore, any residence you’re thinking of living in should support this goal by requiring abstinence and helping residents prevent relapse.

Red Flag: No Safety or Privacy Provisions

Residents who live in SLHs and halfway houses are entitled to both safety and privacy, which may be ensured by having clear safety and privacy rules.

Red Flag: No House Rules

To keep an orderly home, reasonable house rules should be part of an SLH or halfway house protocol. These rules are similar to what parents might expect of their children or that roommates might agree upon to help maintain a pleasant living environment.

Red Flag: Lacks Clearly Stated Ethical Standards

Ethical behavior is vital when it comes to running an SLH or halfway house. The administrator or owner of the home must gain residents’ trust and display ethical behavior and conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times.

Red Flag: Employs Untrained or Uncertified Staff

In California, there are no regulations about who can and cannot run an SLH and background checks are not required to open one. They are so unregulated that even people convicted of drug crimes can get a license to operate a home. Unsurprisingly, many of these people focus more on profits than effective care and may exploit vulnerable people in pursuit of bigger payouts. This means that people who need help the most might not get it.4

People who are in positions of authority in the home, whether as volunteers or staff, should have the appropriate training and certifications needed for their specific position or duties.8

Red Flag: Does Not Submit to Regulatory Inspections

Regular inspections ensure that an SLH or halfway house meets high standards of quality, that the house is safe, and that there is a plan in place to handle disputes, among other things.8

choose a safe sober living home
Administrators or owners of the home you’re considering should allow inspectors to access the premises and investigate complaints made by residents.8 In one case, a 2013 report by the DC Corrections Information Council detailed residents’ complaints of feeling unsafe in their halfway house, called Hope Village, because there was not an effective system to handle grievances.3

Ensuring that the administration of an SLH or halfway house is vigilant about complying with any kind of necessary inspections is an important part of establishing its validity as a reputable residence.

You deserve to have the best chance at a clean and sober life and doing your homework before entering a transitional home will pay off well into the future.

Last Updated on February 25, 2022
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Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S.
Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S.
Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S., is a mental health writer and expert with more than a decade of experience in mental health and substance abuse.
Related Tags
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