“In 1991, there were 200 Oxford Houses in the United States; now, there are 1,300.
What’s the reason for their success? Could this model be an alternative to the very expensive care that is often required for people with a history of substance abuse or other problems?” asks Leonard Jason, professor, Center for Community Research, Department of Psychology, talking about the original impetus behind his nearly two-decade long research of Oxford House, a self-run, self-supported residence program for recovering drug addicts.
“When I heard about Oxford House, I thought it represented a principle I was looking for: an inexpensive, yet comprehensive, intervention,” recalls Jason.
The number of residents in an Oxford House can range from six to 12; there are houses for men, houses for women and houses that accept women with children. In each house, residents are self-governing; anyone is welcome as long as he or she contributes to the household and stays sober.
“I wanted to evaluate the model, then spent seven years writing grants before I got funded because the ‘self-help’ approach contradicts the traditional and dominant ‘professional’ model which says that only ‘professionals’ can treat people with problems,” he says. “Our first grants with Joe Ferrari were to find out whether Oxford House works and, if so, how.” Altogether, Jason’s research has received more than $24 million in grants, most recently one for $3.3 million from the National Institutes of Health.
“Our work brings credibility to the program,” says Jason. After two years, 65 percent to 70 percent of addicts transitioning back into the community through Oxford House are substance-free, compared with 35 percent for the control group. Their income is about $1,000 per month compared with $500 per month for the control group, while criminal activity is also significantly lower for Oxford House alumni.
“Once we had those numbers, we began looking at other dimensions—such as ethnicity or neighbors’ perceptions—and their effect on residents’ behavior and long-term sobriety,” says Jason. “Each study has had a different emphasis, and in fact we have published 50 or 60 articles, as well as a popular book, Rescued Lives.”
Jason’s current research team is focused on recidivism rates of ex-offenders living in various settings, one of which is an Oxford House. “Will Oxford House work as well for people coming out of jail as it has for substance abusers? And just think of the many other possibilities,” he suggests.
“Would the model work for the homeless? For kids 18 to 22 who are liberated from the foster system and have no place to go? How about for the chronically ill or the elderly? Or for students trying to remain abstinent while in a university setting? Housing is a nexus for so many social problems, and a safe place to live is the fundamental connection to a community.”
Over the years, Jason’s research teams have included dozens of graduate and undergraduate students, some of whom are now faculty members at other universities. This year, 16 students and interns who worked at the center were successful in getting into graduate schools. “Our students are participating in real, meaningful change,” he says.
“As a community psychologist, I’m really interested in how society can help people help themselves: How can we help them conquer tough problems while depending on expensive programs that aren’t sustainable? I think Oxford House could be the future of how our country serves the marginalized and disenfranchised among us.”