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Length of Stay in a Transitional Sober Living Home

Author: Leah K. Walker, PhD

Sober living homes provide housing and social support for people leaving residential drug treatment, jail, or who simply need an environment free from substance abuse to help prevent relapse. However, they are not treatment facilities and don’t provide formal counseling, but many do encourage participation in 12-step programs. Since they are not treatment facilities, they are not regulated by state or local government (though many are members of coalitions that mandate adherence to standards and protocols), so it is important to remember that no state or federal agencies are inspecting and regulating them.1 Because of this, it is important to do your own research and determine if the home belongs to one of these coalitions. It is also helpful to consult with your treatment provider, physician, and trusted friends and family when choosing a sober living home that best meets your needs for recovery.

Sober living programs originated in California and most of the nation’s sober homes are still concentrated in that area. The 2 major coalitions in the state are the Sober Living Network (SLN) and the California Association of Addiction Recovery Resources (CAARR), both of which monitor quality, safety, and adherence to a peer-oriented model of recovery. SLN membership consists of more than 500 sober living homes, and CAARR has more than 24 agencies that provide sober living programs.2

Outside of California, the Oxford House model, which has homes throughout the United States and abroad, includes about 1,000 homes.3 Another coalition, the National Association of Recovery Residences (NARR) lists more than 1,900 residences as part of their group.4

Sober living homes can be a critical part of ongoing recovery, since addiction is a life-long, chronic disease that often benefits from longer-term support than is usually provided in an initial treatment program. Staying in a sober living home has been shown to have positive impacts on rates of incarceration, employment, relapse prevention, and sobriety.5 However, the length of stay in a sober living home does vary based on numerous factors such as your financial needs, your willingness to follow the rules, and the severity of your addiction. With longer stays, residents can benefit from job training and other programs to better prepare them for independent living and long-term recovery.

Factors That Contribute to Length of Stay

One of the most important things to think about is why you want to go to a sober living home because those reasons will likely influence your length of stay. For example, if you have been in jail or in a residential treatment program for several months, you may have given up your housing and might not have the financial means to come up with security deposits or buy furniture. The relatively low cost of a sober living home will give you time to save money to make your own housing arrangements.

Or, perhaps you have been through rehab before and relapsed shortly after returning home because your family members continued to use alcohol or drugs around you. So you learned that you need more time after leaving rehab to work on resistance skills and believe that a sober living home can give you the benefit of several months in a drug-free environment with peer support. A sober living home also gives you the opportunity to leave a 24/7 controlled environment and transition into everyday life with continued (albeit reduced) support. How long this transition might take you is determined by individual factors.

Rarely do sober living homes mandate a specific minimum length of stay, unless you are there as a requirement of probation or parole. In many sober living homes, if you follow the rules, you can stay as long as you feel you need to.

To live there, you must pay monthly fees (essentially, rent), which support the cost of maintaining the home. Additionally, many sober living homes have resident councils, which help govern daily life, enforce house rules, and offer peer support. Other sober living homes are more like boarding houses, except that there are strict abstinence requirements, and residents do not get the final say about rule-making.

While everyone is unique, in general, your length of stay in a sober living home depends on certain factors, which might include:4

  • Individual needs. Some residents of sober living homes have more needs than others, such as co-occurring psychiatric disorders or needing to complete vocational training or education before being able to independently support yourself.
  • Progress in a recovery program. In some houses, if you relapse, you can stay by following new requirements, such as increasing your attendance at 12-step meetings and keeping regular appointments with your therapist. Your peers will likely encourage you to stay longer to ensure that you are ready to live with drugs or alcohol outside the sober living home. However, if you continue to relapse, eviction could result.
  • Willingness to follow house rules. The basic requirements for residency are to follow the rules and to pay rent. In some sober living homes, particularly those run by the criminal justice system, you may have to meet additional benchmarks to advance toward graduation from the house.

In terms of efficacy for substance abuse treatment, the widely agreed-upon time frame is a minimum of 90 days.6 But, for sober living homes, similar to an inpatient or outpatient program, the specific length will also be influenced by factors, such as:

  • Severity of alcohol and drug use problems. People with a history of severe drug use problems—for example, primary opioid dependence—may face more significant health risks in the event of a relapse and may benefit from longer-term stays.
  • Failed attempts at other forms of shorter-term treatment. If you’ve repeatedly relapsed during other forms of aftercare, you may need to commit to a longer stay at your sober living home.7(13)
  • Home environment. If you are living in an environment in which drugs and alcohol are present, abstinence and recovery are obviously much more difficult. Research has shown that encountering people, places, and things previously linked to drug use, as well as direct contact with drugs, are key triggers for relapse. Staying away from these triggers, and from drugs, is critical for sustained recovery.8
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders. Overall, people with co-occurring mental disorders and substance abuse have worse outcomes when it comes to abstinence and long-term recovery. However, in a recent study, people with certain types of mental illness reported greater rates of abstinence from substances when they had social support and a drug-free environment.9

A study of the Oxford House (sober living home) model showed that the average person stayed 1 year in sober living, although numerous residents stayed as long as 3 years.4 Another study showed an average length of stay of 5 months, with about 18% of residents staying 12 months and 16% staying 18 months. These residents reported that 5 months seemed to be the time needed to gain the most benefit from the program.10 In another study, the recommended length of stay was 6 months, and the average stay was about 90 days.5 The research is somewhat limited, but longer stays in a sober living home were generally associated with better outcomes.4 Researchers also found that regardless of many other factors, substance use in a person’s social network was the number-one factor that predicted relapse.10

Why Might a Longer Stay Be Beneficial?

As previously noted, drug addiction treatment appears to be most effective with a treatment duration of at least 90 days.6 And when it comes to sober living homes, studies indicate that ongoing positive outcomes 6, 12, and 18 months after first entering sober living home are a result of an average length of stay of 5 months to achieve maximum benefit.10

You can expect to gain a number of skills and benefits the longer you live in a sober home (and in the time after you move out), including:

  • Education and employment. A recent study of an Oxford House community indicated that staying 3 to 5 months in the Oxford House was positively correlated with a greater number of days worked while still living in the home and after they moved out as well. In addition, those people who stayed at least 9 months had significantly more attendance at school or vocational training than those who stayed less than 3 months.12
  • Developing a substance-free social network. Peer support in a substance-free environment is an important factor in recovery from substance abuse, just as participation in a group dedicated to abstinence is one of the best indicators of long-term sobriety.11 A sober living home provides an opportunity to go beyond just attending 12-step groups and allows you to receive peer support consistently outside of meetings. In a sober living home, residents who have been there for some time serve as support for newer residents, which coincides with the 12-step concept of giving back. A sober living home also provides distance between the person in recovery and peers and family members who are still using alcohol or drugs, therefore reducing the triggers to relapse.12
  • Safe and stable housing. Homeless people are at substantially higher risk of relapse.10 Many sober living facilities, particularly the Oxford House model, allow residents to stay as long as they like. This is significant since homelessness is a common outcome for people who become severely addicted to drugs or alcohol, people leaving prison, or people leaving a residential treatment facility. Increasing the odds of homelessness is the fact that affordable housing can be difficult to obtain, especially when a person has a criminal record or has no savings from having not worked due to addiction and long-term treatment. In one study, few incoming sober living house residents reported a stable living situation prior to entering the sober living facility.3

No matter your reason for entering a sober living home, how long you stay will depend on many of the factors discussed in this article. The important thing is to make choices that can help you stay clean and give you the best opportunity for an addiction-free life.

Sources
  1. The Sober Living Network. (2012). Standard for quality sober living homes.
  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. Polcin, D. L., & Henderson, D. M. (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.
  4. National Association of Recovery Residences. (2012). A primer on recovery residences: FAQs from the National Association of Recovery Residences.
  5. Mericle, A. A., Polcin, D. L., Hemberg, J., & Miles, J. (2017). Recovery housing: evolving models to address resident needs.Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 49(4), 352–361.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2018). Principles of effective treatment.
  7. Government of Australia. New South Wales Department of Health (2007). Drug and alcohol treatment guidelines for residential settings.
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Drugs, brains, and behavior. The science of addiction.
  9. Polcin, D. L. & Korcha, R. (2017). Social support influences on substance abuse outcomes among sober living house residents with low and moderate psychiatric severity. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 61(1), 51.
  10. Polcin, D. L., Korcha, R. A., Bond, J., & Galloway, G. (2010). Sober living houses for alcohol and drug dependence: 18-month outcomes. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 38(4), 356–365.
  11. Substance Abuse Mental Health and Services Administration. (2012). SAMHSA’s working definition of recovery.
  12. Jason, L. A. & Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Oxford house recovery homes: Characteristics and effectiveness. Psychological Services, 7(2), 92.