What to Look for When Choosing a Sober Living Home

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).

These organizations state that there are more than 500 individual houses in their memberships.2

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

The National Council for Behavioral Health has called for legislation that requires recovery housing to meet national quality standards.5

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.

Watch for Red Flags
If you think an SLH or a halfway house is a good choice for your next stage of recovery, be aware of the following red flags to avoid falling prey to a poorly run or potentially dangerous facility:
  • Claims to be free or will pay you
  • Rundown or unsafe building
  • Does not have admissions requirements or does not keep records
  • Does not require abstinence or regular drug testing
  • Has no safety or privacy provisions
  • Has no house rules
  • Lacks clearly stated ethical standards
  • Employs untrained or uncertified staff
  • Does not submit to regulatory inspections

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.

Generally speaking, you should keep an eye out for:8

  • An interior that is clean and neatly kept.
  • Exterior grounds should be maintained similarly to or better than other houses in the neighborhood.
  • Sleeping quarters that are located within the home and not in a garage or an outbuilding.
  • Signs of insect or rodent infestation.
  • Broken windows or walls or doors in disrepair.
  • Working kitchen and bathroom facilities.
  • Adequately lit rooms in evening hours.

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.

If a SLH or halfway house you are considering does not have standardized paperwork they create and keep on every resident, consider this a red flag too.

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.

Standard drug testing procedures might include:8

  • Mandatory regular drug and alcohol (toxicology) testing conducted by the SLH or halfway house.
  • Toxicology testing conducted in a fair and dignified manner by trained workers.
  • A written policy of the disciplinary process for residents who test positive for drugs or alcohol.
  • The use of marijuana, even with a prescription, is only allowed with explicit prior approval.
  • Medication policies are strictly followed.

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.

safety and privacy such as:8

  • Mixed-gender homes should have separate living quarters and separate bathrooms for each gender.
  • Only private bedroom doors should have locks.
  • Residences that house women and children should not have adult males living in the home.
  • Confidential resident information should be kept in a locked office and remain off-limits to residents except with permission.
  • Weapons are not allowed in the home at any time.
  • Violence, intimidation, and abusive language or behavior is strictly is prohibited and will result in the offender being removed from the house.
  • Lewd behavior, threats of violence, antisocial conduct, or any behavior that violates a person’s safety or security are strictly prohibited.

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.

Examples of acceptable house rules might include:

  • Each resident having regular chores they complete before being allowed extra privileges (e.g., taking out the trash, washing the dishes).
  • Each resident does their own laundry.
  • Each resident gets a turn to decide what television show to watch.
  • Music is played at reasonable levels in residents’ rooms.

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.

Specifically, look for these examples of ethical standards to be clearly stated and followed:8

  • All halfway houses and SLHs should have and follow a specific Code of Ethics, which are provided to you during admission.
  • Homes should be properly insured to protect residents and guests.
  • Administrators and owners should meet all financial obligations to staff and contractors.
  • Administrators and owners do not pay anyone “finders fees” for bringing them new residents.
  • They do not falsify urine tests for the purposes of getting insurance payments.
  • Staff must be abstinent when working or on the SLH or halfway house premises.
  • Advertising or promotional materials accurately represent the facility and services.
  • Staff members do not involve residents in any outside business interests that are for the benefit of those staff members.

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

To ensure you get the proper help you need, look for homes that employ trained and certified treatment staff.

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.

Sources

  1. Polcin DL, & Henderson D. (2008). A clean and sober place to live: Philosophy, structure, and purported therapeutic factors in sober living houses. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 40(2), 153–159.
  2. Polcin, D.L., Korcha, R., Bond, J., & Galloway, G. (2010). What did we learn from our study on sober living houses and where do we go from here? Journal of Psychoactive Drugs,42(4), 425–433.
  3. Prison Legal News. (2015). When halfway houses pose full-time problems.
  4. Insurance Fraud News. (2017). Scams by sober homes, urine labs blighting SoCal.
  5. The National Council for Behavioral Health. (2016). Building recovery: State policy guide for supporting recovery housing.
  6. HMS. (2018). Preying on the vulnerable: Sober home fraud.
  7. Mericle, A.A., Karriker-Jaffe, K.J., Gupta, S., Sheridan, D.M., & Polcin, D.L. (2016). Distribution and neighborhood correlates of sober living house locations in Los Angeles. American Journal of Community Psychology, 58(1-2), 89–99.
  8. The Sober Living Network. (2012). Standard for quality sober living homes.
Last Updated on February 4, 2020
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Emily Mendez
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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