In one Lake Highlands community, a house full of recovering drug addicts frightens neighbors. But one mother wants people to know that places like this can save lives — she wishes the son she lost to heroin would have stayed.
A bunch of men with a history of substance-abuse problems have moved to a house at the end of the street, kitty-corner from a popular playground — that’s how one panicked neighbor explains the situation. “Eight druggies living next to a school,” he says.
Some members of our neighborhood’s Town Creek community are not happy about their new status as unwitting neighbors of the Oxford House, a nationwide transitional-living residential program for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.
The Town Creek Homeowners Association has no official stance on the issue, says a skeptical Ernie Kluft, the neighborhood’s former crime watch chairman: “However, I have not met one person in the neighborhood who thinks this is a good idea. Most of the neighbors are livid.”
Oxford House is a 34-year-old international organization with more than 1,000 houses — 100 in Texas. All are rentals in nice neighborhoods that offer newly sober men and women an opportunity to safely rebuild their lives.
Town Creek homeowners are not the first to object to sober-living houses in residential areas.
A 2002 New York Times article highlights several court cases involving sober houses fighting for the right to exist in neighborhoods and cities that don’t want them.
In the cited cases, people living in Oxford House had been accused of violating zoning ordinances that prohibit more than a few unrelated people from living together. But there, as in Dallas, Oxford Houses comply with city zoning requirements: Addiction is considered a medical condition, and recovering addicts and alcoholics are protected under the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Federal Fair Housing statutes.
The Lake Highlands House
The Lake Highlands Oxford House is a two-story, pink-ish place behind coifed hedges. The grass is a little yellow, but trim, and two St. Francis statuettes stand sentry at the front door.
Three men — Chris McGuire, Shawn Brown and Stephen Wilson — answer the door and offer a tour. Later, we meet roommate Alan Hodges, too.
The other occupants are either at work or prefer anonymity.
When there is an opening at an Oxford House — this one is full at eight — the existing members interview and vote on new members.
As we tour the property, it’s obvious that cleanliness is a priority.
The beige carpets are freshly vacuumed and — even where the sunlight hits the dark wood fireplace mantel — not a speck of dust is visible.
No one would guess from the sparkling bathrooms that eight single males, ranging in age from early 20s to 60s, live here.
Chores are a basic requirement of Oxford House life, says McGuire, who is the state outreach coordinator for Texas.
A dry-erase board in the kitchen lists the name of each inhabitant and his weekly duties.
Chores are completed twice weekly; slacking results in a fine of $5-$25 added to the weekly rent.
The chore requirement falls under the mandate “Do Not Be Disruptive,” one of the three official Oxford House rules.
“That rule covers a lot,” McGuire says. “It means respecting the property, being supportive, attending house meetings and just being a generally decent person.”
Each resident must pay rent, typically $110-$115 a week. Every Oxford House is owned by a third party and leased to Oxford House Inc.
“It is structured in a way that someone newly sober and struggling financially has an opportunity to live in a good neighborhood,” McGuire says.
The most important requirement for Oxford House is zero tolerance for drug or alcohol use by residents.
“If someone relapses, they have one hour to permanently vacate the house,” says Brown, who founded the Lake Highlands house. “And your roommates are pretty quick to spot relapse behavior when it happens.”
As we chat, it is clear Wilson — the house’s youngest member — and Brown are good pals and supporters of each other’s recovery.
Yet, if Brown caught Wilson drinking, would he would rat Wilson out, knowing it would mean his permanent dismissal?
“Absolutely,” Brown says. “I would bawl my eyes out, but he would be out. That is for the good of the whole house. It is the only way we can avoid putting each other at risk.”
In order to prevent relapse, all housemates attend 12-step meetings — Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous or some variation thereof.
“It is not in the rules,” McGuire says, “but we all accept that the only way to stay sober is through a 12-step program, and we hold one another accountable. If someone is not going to meetings, they will be confronted.”
Lake Highlands High School nurse Nancy Cripe’s gentle and cheerful temperament belies her painfully acquired and profound understanding of addiction, tough love and Oxford House philosophy.
Her son, Stephen, began abusing drugs at 14, after his father died from prostate cancer.
“I tried to get him into counseling after that, but Steve would sit there for a whole hour and refuse to talk. It was right around then that he first used marijuana. I think that was the way he chose to cope.”
Stephen was the family baby. His brother and sister, respectively 8 and 11 years his elders, adored him, Cripe recalls.
Her photos show a clean-cut, handsome, smiling and laughing young man. But his chemical dependency escalated, and heroin became his drug of choice.
Funded by Nancy, Stephen entered treatment multiple times. He was jailed and placed on probation for attempting to sell marijuana to a cop.
Treatment is tricky, Nancy says, because 30 days — the typical rehab length — is enough to dry an addict out, but not long enough to teach him to live sober.
“When he was himself, Steve was just this wonderful person. He waited tables at Picasso’s and Mariano’s, and people would rave about him,” Nancy says. “He had all these regulars who asked to sit in his section.”
After his last stint in rehab, Stephen moved into an Oxford House in Richardson.
Nancy believed the sober house would improve Steve’s chances. But at Oxford House, Stephen used drugs again. When his roommates found out, they evicted him.
“It didn’t take long. Other people in recovery are going to spot a relapse quicker than I or a parent or spouse is going to,” Cripe says. “They know.”
After his eviction, he was arrested for a drug-related offense. His Oxford House roommates bailed him out and picked him up, but held fast to the zero-tolerance policy.
So did Nancy.
She gave her 24-year-old son enough money to get Downtown to the 24-Hour Club, an Alcoholics Anonymous-associated shelter.
But he never made it.
Later that night, Stephen injected himself with heroin and died in a Jack in the Box bathroom.
Cripe tries not to blame herself for Stephen’s death, and she doesn’t blame the Oxford House roommates, either.
“You can see it there. Many of them are three and four years sober, and it is because they live in a sober community.”
Even before Stephen’s funeral, Cripe called Chris McGuire at the Oxford House and told him she wanted to set up a fund in Stephen’s name to help the newly sober move into Oxford House.
It is her way of fulfilling Steve’s wish to help other addicts.
It is safe to say that most Oxford House residents have endured a painful battle with addiction and are taking the difficult steps to break free, Chris McGuire says. “[We] have a sickness,” he says. “There is relapse. Sometimes, it takes several tries.”
McGuire has been sober for many years sans relapse, but Brown says he relapsed before finally finding a formula — one that includes living and working as an outreach representative for Oxford House — that resulted in long-term sobriety.
Addiction can happen to anyone, the Oxford House residents agree. There are doctors and lawyers living in Oxford Houses and even people whose names you might recognize as local professionals or celebrities, they say. Alan Hodges was a certified public accountant and president at an Enron Corporation subsidiary. At the height of his career, the 55-year-old made $1 million a year.
Following a fraud scandal that skyrocketed Enron into infamy, Hodges discovered the pain-numbing effects of alcohol.
“Enron was something of a pressure cooker, but before the [scandal] I only drank socially.”
Hodges was divorced and had custody of his two daughters; one was preparing to leave for college when Enron went bankrupt, and Hodges lost most of his money, including $22 million in stock options, he says.
All of Hodges’ problems collectively were soothed with alcohol. “I would drink just to fall asleep,” he says.
He attempted suicide. He went through psychiatric treatment and sobered up for eight months but returned to drinking, socially at first. But things spiraled again.
“I was living in a 16th-floor apartment with a balcony,” he says. “I was afraid I would jump. I knew I would die soon if I didn’t stop drinking.”
This time he knew that success would require putting sobriety-promoting pieces into place — psychotherapy, 12-step program, steady employment (he manages a high-end cooking-appliance store now) and a supportive living environment. He moved into the Lake Highlands house in November.
One of the first roommates he met was a tattooed ex-convict.
“I was like, ‘What could I possibly have in common with this guy?’ But he turned out to be the nicest man,” Hodges says.
“We are all very different. But we have this obsessive behavior in common … we want the same thing … the primary purpose of this house is to provide a safe environment where someone can be sober.”
Is there something to fear?
In September 2013, there was a fatal shooting at an Oxford House in Richardson. It’s a case frequently cited by the neighbors opposed to sober group homes. But Chris McGuire says Oxford Houses do not increase the risk of neighborhood crime.
He points to a 2006 study by the Center for Community Research at DePaul University. The study investigated crime rates (including assault, arson, burglary, larceny, robbery, sexual assault, homicide and vehicle theft) in areas surrounding 42 Oxford Houses and 42 control houses in the Northwestern United States.
“Findings indicated that there were no significant differences between the crime rates around Oxford Houses and the control houses,” according to the study.
Also, Oxford House opponents accurately cite the high rate of relapse in alcohol and drug addicts.
“I mean, what is the recidivism rate of these people?” Ernie Kluft poses rhetorically. “It is high.”
A 2007 Oxford House study by Jason, Davis, Ferrari and Anderson cited 150 people who had completed treatment — half went straight to Oxford House while the other half relied on public services and alternative living situations. Of those who moved to Oxford House, 31.3 percent reported using alcohol or other drugs again within a year, compared to 64.8 percent of those who did not.
Kluft also points out, accurately, that Oxford House allows ex-convicts. “This is not safe,” Kluft says. “The neighbors here are especially concerned with them being so close to the children at the elementary school.”
Oxford House’s McGuire argues that the need for Oxford House is especially significant for those with drug-related criminal records. Because of their background, landlords often don’t allow them to rent in nice communities, forcing them back into risky home situations where they are at increased risk of relapse. Brown and McGuire say they share the neighbors’ concern for students. They say that every Oxford House resident, in addition to being interviewed and voted in by his or her peers, undergoes a background check, and sex offenders are prohibited from living in Oxford House. “Many Oxford Houses are close to schools and it would be illegal for a sex offender to live in those. We take federal and state laws seriously,” McGuire says.
‘A chance at a normal life’
A community prosecutor and representatives from the city’s code compliance and group home department all have visited the Lake Highlands Oxford House.
Neighbors have complained about the number of cars parked on the street and the number of unrelated people living in the home, but City Councilman Jerry Allen says that the men are violating no laws or codes and that concerns about the house had been “addressed to the satisfaction of the leadership of the Town Creek HOA.”
“At the end of the day, the Oxford House organization has a very fine reputation, and the folks that call that location home are no different than anyone else when it comes to seeking a better quality of life,” Allen says. “The real story might be of their success and drive, versus [the stories of those who] find the bogeyman behind each corner.”
Nancy Cripe, who lost her son to a heroin overdose, believes Oxford residents can be as good as or better than the typical family next door.
“I mean — do you really know most of your neighbors? You don’t know what most of your neighbors are doing,” she says.
“These are all people who want a chance at a normal life. They have all made a decision to seriously try to live clean and sober. And if they can’t do it, they are out.
“I look at pictures of Stephen as a little boy. Every one of these men was a little boy once. I know of one young man who was at Steve’s funeral who has since overdosed,” she says.
“The day after Stephen died, I came close to pulling the covers over my head and never leaving bed. But I got up. I went on a long walk with my neighbor, a friend who lost her child the previous year. I reached out to [Oxford House] and got busy with the foundation,” she says.
“I am living proof that, with supportive, empathetic friends, life can go on. Like the ones who stay clean prove that there is hope.”