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Pagosa Springs Oxford House A positive path to sober living

If you browse the rental section in The SUN, what you won’t see is a listing for the Oxford House.

If it were there, the ad might read like this: “Roommate wanted to share home in Pagosa Springs. Female only. Must be over 18, sober, and recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. Affordable rooms now available.”

The Oxford House in Pagosa Springs is a home meant to provide sober living arrangements for women who are recovering addicts. For a woman who is trying to leave a life of drugs or alcohol behind her, an Oxford House is an inexpensive place to live where she can find support from her roommates going through the same ordeal, as well as professional help from mentors and counselors. The Pagosa Springs Oxford House is one of more than a thousand in the United States — all part of an umbrella non-profit organization with a mission to assure an alcohol and drug-free living environment for recovering addicts.

The idea to create an Oxford House in Pagosa Springs was spawned from Liz Anderson. Liz saw the need for an addiction recovery home in the area and did some online research to find out about existing programs. The setup of the Oxford House model appealed to her.

“The program teaches the roommates how to be responsible and how to work,” Liz remembers, “I loved that concept.”

First started in 1975, the Oxford House has a long history of trial and error for how a recovery house can work, and a manual was available online for Liz to read and learn from. Although the Pagosa house is for women only, Oxford Houses can be for men only, or for women with children.

With the help of Janna Ranson, Liz began the task of finding a home in the area to use as an Oxford House. Part of the original program design is that the houses are rented or leased, not purchased, and are self-run and self-supported by the tenants who live there. The Pagosa Springs Oxford House opened in June of 2008 and can house up to six women. Liz has seen as many as five tenants and as few as one in the home, with stays ranging from three days to over a year and ages from 18 to 60-something. There are currently three women living in the house.

“I always envisioned a place for women to stay sober and to get away from their friends,” Liz says.

A pattern she sees in the community is women who can’t get sober in their present living situation. The Oxford House is a place for a woman to go and live for a week, a month, or a year or more, until she is ready to get out on her own. Tenants are required to attend at least three Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings per week, and must stay sober to continue living in the house. The women understand that if they are caught using alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs, they will be immediately evicted.

“Some people just aren’t ready to get sober,” Liz comments. “Stopping an addiction is completely changing your outlook on life.”

Since the house was started, Liz has seen some women recover — and some just go crazy — but even the ones who can’t stay sober the first time can reapply and return later.

“Everyone deserves another chance,” Liz says. Currently, random drug testing is done by Liz or Ranson, who are both acting as mentors and helping to run the house until a steadier flow of women are able to make the house more self-sufficient. Eventually, the goal is to have the tenants do the drug testing and administer the rules. Each house aims to have a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer who are voted in by the other house members. Liz notes that the Oxford House central office has said that women’s houses in small communities often fail, but she is working hard to ensure that the Pagosa Springs house is not one of them.

Applicants to the house are referred to the existing tenants by local social service organizations. The women already living at the home decide who can come in and who can’t. Once accepted into the house, the women must follow a strict set of self-imposed rules. Grievances are discussed at a weekly house meeting that Janna or Liz attend and facilitate. The three main rules of the house are: the tenants must stay sober; must not be disruptive to other members; and must be working, seeking work, or volunteering in the community doing service work. Tenants who share a room are required to pay $55 per week to cover rent and utilities. The cost is $70 per week for a private room. For women who do not yet have a job or funds to cover the rent, the Pagosa Outreach Connection has helped by donating the fees for women to stay up to two months while they are sober and going through the recovery process.

An integral part of the Oxford House model is having the tenants self-manage and take care of their house. There is no on-site counselor, and no one to tell them what to do on a day-to-day basis. While the goal is to give the women rules and responsibility, so when they leave the house they have the necessary skills to deal with a sober life, it is this responsibility that is the most difficult for many of the women in the home. According to Liz, addicts have a hard time taking care of themselves, paying bills, and taking care of their children or their households. One of the current Oxford House residents, named Mary for this article, describes the struggles she sees recovering women at the home going through.

“Some of the women need someone looking over their shoulder all the time,” Mary says. “There is no supervision here. We make our own choices on a daily basis.”

And, although Mary acknowledges the difficulty that the women have creating a responsible, sober life, she sums up the outcome by saying, “We can’t blame someone else if we fail.” She recognizes the fact that the home offers the women a chance to pursue a different path in their lives.

A lifetime resident of Pagosa Springs, Mary found the Oxford House through a friend who was a tenant, and having a friend already there made the transition much easier for her. She has been at the house for several months and has seen women struggle with having to follow the rules.

“It’s an adjustment to being responsible,” she says. When asked what she envisions for her future, she replies, “I have a pretty full plate and I’m taking it one day at a time.”

Mary wants to eventually return to school to finish her training in massage therapy, but for now she is happy to have a safe and affordable place to live in a sober environment. She attends several weekly twelve step meetings with her roommates, and every Thursday they all meet to discuss what is going well and any problems they have with each other, such as messiness or cleaning up the kitchen. For support, Mary and her roommates also have access to Kathryn Nelson, an addiction counselor that visits the house once a week.

Because the nationally organized Oxford House is a non-profit, many houses seek access to government money for funding. The Pagosa Springs house does not use any government money and is funded solely by community support, private donations, and the rent money the tenants pay. To help them through the ordeal of attaining long-term sobriety, the women residents learn the skills of maintaining a household, paying bills, and working with each other to ensure they all stay drug and alcohol free. The women are able to seek job opportunities through the Colorado Workforce Center, and local non-profits help by contributing money for new work wardrobes. The women who cannot find jobs but have the funds to pay their rent, volunteer their time in the community doing service work at places like local senior homes or the Chamber of Commerce.

To stay at an Oxford House, a woman doesn’t need to be a resident of the community, and Liz has found that it is often better if the tenant is not from the area. She has seen women in Pagosa Springs have a hard time trying to get sober while staying in our small community, and she encourages people from outside the community as well, to seek out the Oxford House as a place to get sober. Conversely, women who live here and wish to start over someplace else, away from the pull of friends who aren’t encouraging sobriety, can go online and find a list of Oxford House homes for women in other communities.

Mary is thankful that she found a comfortable place in Pagosa Springs to help her on her road to recovery. “If you really want to do something better with your life,” she says as she holds back tears, “this is a place to take a different path.”

For more information on the Oxford House, to refer a tenant or get an application, contact Liz Anderson at (970) 749-7405, or Janna Ranson at ( 970) 884-5289.