Washington State Governor Jay Inslee visited an Oxford House in Federal Way on Oct. 6 to talk with people in recovery from substance abuse.
Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell also met with the governor that day, discussing transit in a meeting with other local mayors in Auburn.
At the Oxford House, Inslee sat down with residents, local Oxford House chapter leaders and regional staff. Also present were representatives from the Washington Health Care Authority.
In a circle of folding chairs, stools and couches, the assembled group shared stories of perseverance and personal growth. The conversation was led by Inslee’s questions and centered on hearing personal stories of people’s experiences with recovery from substance abuse and the role that living at an Oxford House had in that change.
Oxford Houses are democratic and self-managed, and intended as clean and sober transitional housing. Residents pool their resources to pay rent and expenses from private owners. They do rely on basic rules and guidelines, and are connected to one another through local chapter meetings.
“The Oxford House network in Washington includes 347 homes with over 3,000 beds available for adults and children in need of a place to live. The network relies in part on an annual $1.2 million grant from federal funds administered by Washington’s Health Care Authority,” according to the governor’s office.
Despite serving over 3,000 people at a time, there are only approximately 14-15 paid staff total. They do outreach and provide support to local chapters and are paid through a federal block grant.
Inslee signed a change in law in May 2023 that recriminalized drug possession, but provided the option to refer to a drug rehabilitation and avoid jail time.
“The fundamental message is that recovery is possible,” Inslee told The Mirror after his visit to the Oxford House. He affirmed the need to look for “things that work,” adding that “having teams, having relationships, having some support, that works a lot better than having people sit in a jail cell for a couple of years. This is much more successful for everybody, for the people, for society, for the community.”
Structure of Oxford Houses
Oxford Houses began in 1975 in Silver Spring, Maryland. Those familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous may notice similarities in their organizational structure.
Each house is independent and run by volunteers who live there. They are responsible for paying the rent, interviewing and deciding on new members and all other aspects of maintenance of the house. They can reach out to other houses within a local chapter or to the larger organization of Oxford Houses for help. Each individual location also has the freedom to set their own charter and add rules depending on their needs.
Residents of Oxford Houses are required to pay their share of rent and utilities, attend house meetings and maintain sobriety. If they use any drugs or alcohol while living in the house, they will be told to leave. This core requirement of sobriety is absolutely essential to their success, according to their initial founder.
According to attendees of the meeting, new Oxford House tenants often hear about the houses from presentations from Oxford House volunteers at in-patient treatment centers. When first entering the house, many people are not employed, but pay for their first few months of rent through grant funding, housing vouchers, family support or some other source of help.
All residents at an Oxford House meet once a week to discuss anything they need to talk about within the house. They pool skills and take on responsibilities. For example, someone who is good with numbers might take on being the treasurer of the house and be responsible for collecting dues from the others, and paying rent and bills. Other house staples like toilet paper and even coffee are also paid for collectively.
“Even when this house is full and there are 13 men living here, we all work so I can even come down and spend some time in this living room and often not see anyone for hours,” Jon said. “It’s peaceful.”
Also at the meeting were several Oxford House staff who moved on from the housing many years ago. A large component of the organization’s leadership is that they only employ current or former Oxford House members, according to Ricky Mogel, Senior King County Outreach Coordinator for Oxford House.
The house that Inslee visited is actually owned by someone who used to live in an Oxford House many years ago. He now owns several houses in the area and rents them to Oxford House participants. This action lines up with Oxford Tradition Nine: “Members who leave an Oxford House in good standing are encouraged to become associate members and offer friendship, support, and example to newer members.”
Beyond Substance Use
Several Oxford House representatives talked about how the expectations around clear personal boundaries and communication within the houses has helped their recovery. They said the balance of accountability and independence in a safe environment provides a framework for them to move forward in their lives.
There are a few different types of Oxford Houses, including homes for single women and those for single men, as well as separate homes for men with children or women with children. Inslee asked residents from a nearby house for women and children how well it functions and if there are ever parenting conflicts.
“We’re all moms,” resident Dylaney Keating said, adding that “we’re really close and really good at communicating with each other.”
“It’s basic respect as well,” added Taylor Brown, who also lives at the home with her child. “If something is bothering us, we’re expected to say something.”
They shared that one of the questions that they ask when interviewing new housemates is: “Can you handle being confronted and can you confront someone in a constructive way?” They said that having this expectation of direct and respectful communication from the beginning helps everyone work through and address any issues that come up.
Brown shared that she got clean in 2020, but relapsed after losing her job in the restaurant industry during the pandemic. She ended up at an Oxford House with her child and paid the rent for the first three months there through a King County grant specifically for Oxford Houses. Being at the Oxford House helped “build the foundation of my recovery” and focus on parenting her 2-year-old while she figured out what to do next.
All of the children at their Oxford House attend the same school. Keating said it really is like a family and that they’ve all become very close.
Richard Ramirez is a resident at another nearby house. He said that when “we’re in recovery, we’re used to being absorbed with ourselves,” but that entering an Oxford House, there are people at all stages of recovery who have been there for different periods of time. Before long, someone new will come into the house and “you provide that environment for the next person.”
Moises Cortez III said that the Oxford House structure taught him to “advocate for myself and to have boundaries while respecting other people’s.” Having conflict within the house is a positive because having “tough conversations provides the opportunity to practice advocating for ourselves and for others.”
Cortez III said that having those moments to practice their own personal growth and recovery within the context of house and chapter meetings then helps him and others “take those skills and apply them to our waking life.”
Oxford House tenants often spend a lot of time volunteering in various ways. Some go out and meet with landlords to try to find new Oxford House locations.
“For about every 12 landlords that say no, one of them says yes,” Jon Hutchins told The Mirror. He said many landlords are reluctant to rent to those in recovery, but that by being persistent they are able to find places that are a good fit.
Research on Oxford Houses have typically shown positive results. One study in 2012 in Illinois found that “Oxford House participants had better outcomes over time across the board, even when models adjusted for participant gender, age, and the presence of a co-occurring psychiatric disorder. In addition, Oxford House participants also had greater increases in self-regulation over time.”
Benjamin Harpine shared that he lived in other “clean and sober” houses that were very unhelpful in his recovery. He said just putting a bunch of people together in a house doesn’t work unless there is some structure in place and expectations about how to communicate with one another.
“This is the first time I’ve had a home in my life,” one person shared, saying that growing up, they moved around a lot and never really knew what it felt like to live in stability rather than chaos.
Inslee said “these are very inspiring stories,” and that he was specifically impressed with the way participants “take leadership in the organization itself afterwards. It’s a growth opportunity when people are controlling their own destiny in a group setting.”
He said he is interested in seeing how the program can be supported more.