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As number of recovery residences grows in Colorado, roommates find 'purpose' in sober living homes

Tessa Waterman, Carrie Howard, Deanna Darst, Julia Birdsong, Lynde Reed and Amanda Cunningham live in an Oxford House, a self-supporting and drug free recovery residence.
Stephanie Daniel
Tessa Waterman, Carrie Howard, Deanna Darst, Julia Birdsong, Lynde Reed and Amanda Cunningham live in an Oxford House, a self-supporting and drug free recovery residence.

An estimated 400,000 Coloradans are in recovery for substance-use disorders. In 2019, the state released a five-year plan to help people get and stay sober. A key aspect of the plan is the use of recovery residences. The number of homes is growing as more people choose to live in a substance-free environment.

In a one-story house on a quiet street in Greeley, Julia Birdsong is giving me a tour of the first floor.

“This is my room, it has its own bathroom,” she said. “I get that one because I have seniority in the house.”

Birdsong is one of six women living here and they have one big thing in common: all are in recovery for a substance-use disorder.

“I'm an alcoholic and I was living in a community setting,” she said. “I had relapsed.”

She left that situation and moved into an Oxford House, a self-supporting and drug-free home. The national organization has over 2,400 recovery houses across the country. The number of occupants in each home ranges from six to 15, and there are houses for men, women and women with children.

“I've been in Oxford for over two years. I love it, it gives me purpose,” Birdsong said.

An estimated 400,000 Coloradans are in recovery for substance use disorders. In 2019, the state released a five-year strategic plan to better assist their sobriety. The plan includes best practices for promoting recovery. Under this umbrella are recovery residences, like Oxford House, that provide substance-free living environments in a non-medical setting.

Birdsong moved to this specific house in September. Residents are required to do several things, including pay rent, be employed, attend three recovery-based meetings a week and do weekly chores. When a potential housemate calls about a vacant room, she’s got her spiel down.

“First, I tell them it's democratically run. There's no one person who runs a house, there's no manager of the house and everyone has an equal say in any decision that affects the house,” she said. “We vote on everything.”

Each Oxford House has six officers, like president or treasurer, that are filled by residents. They serve a six-month term then rotate to a new position. This allows everyone to learn the inner workings of the house, from how to conduct meetings to keeping track of finances. Every process is transparent, including the household bills, which are paid by check.

“We have a strong emphasis on a family dynamic. We like individuals to feel like they have a voice and to feel like they have responsibilities,” said Taylor Wright, senior outreach coordinator for Oxford House of Colorado. “You really get to collaborate with the individuals that are living in that space with you to determine what it's all going to look like.

Wright, who is in recovery himself and has lived at several Oxford Houses, believes the model can have a positive impact on a person’s sobriety.

“’Hey, I've actually got some responsibilities that are not using drugs,’” he said. “It was the best feeling in the world to me and I like to think that that's the goal of every new member that's entering an Oxford House.”

Residences on the rise

Recovery residences are growing in Colorado. In 2019, the state legislature passed a bill that created a new certifying agency for them. Since then, certified recovery residences have nearly tripled.

Butch Lewis works with the certifying agency, Colorado Association on Recovery Residences. One of the main benefits of this type of housing, he said, is it allows people in recovery to change their sense of community and form a new one.

“What we want to do is when somebody is in early recovery from either drugs or alcohol, we want to change those people and places and things that they hang around with,” he said. “Get them into that new community and that supportive environment.”

The residences are required to obtain certification from the Colorado Association of Recovery Residences to operate in the state and receive referrals from health care providers or facilities for individuals in need of recovery support services.

“What we want to do is make sure that anybody living in a recovery residence or operating a recovery residence in the state is operating at what we consider best practices,” Lewis said.

This includes hundreds of different requirements, like appropriate space for multiple people sharing a bedroom, egress windows in the basement and active smoke detectors.

Two groups of recovery residences are exempt from this certification: organizations that have been in operation for more than 30 years and Oxford House, which is already regulated.

“I think the big difference between a traditional recovery residence that's operating in Colorado to date and Oxford Houses — Oxford House operates more as a family unit,” Lewis said. “Many of the recovery residences that operate under CARR (Colorado Association of Recovery Residences) operate more from a management style with a house manager.”

In 2011, there were 17 Oxford Houses in the state. Today, there are 105, with plans to add 20 more by the end of the year.

In December, Oxford House of Colorado had an occupancy rate of 83.4% and an abstinence rate of 96.3%. According to the state’s strategic plan for substance use disorder recovery, an analysis found Oxford House increased employment and reduced recidivism.

'Living a life of recovery'

This Oxford House in Greeley has its weekly house meeting on Sundays. Every officer gives an update and minutes are recorded by hand. House president Lynde Reed calls the meeting to order and then leads her housemates in reciting the Serenity Prayer.

Reed, who joined the house in September, was mandated by an adult treatment court to go to a sober living facility for her methamphetamine and opiate addictions. It was tough at first, she said, and housemate Julia Birdsong told her to be prepared to work.

“It was and I hit the ground just running and wanting to help and do whatever I could to make it a more suitable place for all of us and for anybody else coming in,” Reed said.

She loves it here now and has learned to lean on the other women for support. One night she was feeling overwhelmed and reached out to Birdsong.

“She helped me to realize that there's other people here who can help me,” she said. “Having her here that night was very helpful because it kept me from doing what I would usually do and that would be run back to my old ways.”

Reed recently celebrated 90 days of sobriety. She is looking for a job and has applied to cosmetology school.

“I feel like I'm at home here," she said. "But it took me losing everything and catching those charges to unfortunately get to where I'm at now, but I'm grateful for it."

Deanna Darst is an outreach worker for Oxford House in Northern Colorado. She was addicted to opiates, drank and used methamphetamine for 15 years before she found Oxford House.

“It's changed my life substantially. I believe wholeheartedly in the Oxford model,” she said. “I just feel like Oxford is successful not just because it's about being sober, but it's about living a life of recovery.”

Darst held multiple offices in her house before moving into regional and statewide leadership positions. Then she got a job working with the organization.

“It really just gives you that sense of purpose. I never had that before,” she said.

Even though Darst has maintained her sobriety, she recently moved back into a house in Fort Collins. It’s not a requirement for staff; she just needed the extra support.

“There really is that connection, as well as that accountability that you find within your peers,” she said.

Oxford House residents can stay at a house for as long as they want. A person will only get kicked out if they relapse, don’t pay their equal share of expenses, or behave disruptively.

“It's a grow or go program,” said Birdsong. “If you're just wanting cheap rent, that's not the place for you because you are held accountable and your behavior matters.”

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