In a stark white house in Austin, Harrice Jones is thinking about her drugged past and the future she’s forging as a resident of Alabaster Box home.
The 33-year-old declares she now feels comfortable walking past a street corner teeming with drug sales and not thinking twice about stopping.
“I was scared to come back into the city [from the suburbs] when I was living in my addiction, because I wasn’t prepared to face the streets,” she said. “But now I walk by them with my armor on.”
Jones was 32 years old when she came to the Alabaster Box, a sober living and transitional house for substance abusers. But Jones, who also copes with bi-polar disorder, recalled, “I was acting like I was 2.”
Pastor Carol Walker, a minister and a registered nurse, founded Alabaster Box eight years ago to help women trying to overcome addictions.
“I’ve been a psychiatric nurse for over 30 years, and I’ve seen women coming in and out of the hospital, and most of the time it was a dual-diagnosis,” she said.
Walker witnessed women suffering from depression or other psychiatric conditions, who were also struggling with addiction to alcohol and drugs.
Three women currently live at the Austin home and are working together to clean up their lives.
“I’m safe here,” said Jones, who has been at the home for a year.
Before she came to Alabaster, Jones compulsively smoked marijuana and used cocaine. She and most of the women at Alabaster start off in a trial period, where their endurance is tested most. Tenants are on lock-down during the initial 30 days and can only leave the house if they’re going to work or searching for a job.
Not in my backyard
But neighborhoods are not always open to the idea of community-based treatment, as managers of similar substance-free facilities have found.
“It doesn’t take much to stir up the ‘not in my backyard’ stuff about these homes,” said Paul Malloy, CEO and founder of Oxford House, Inc., based in Silver Springs, Md. “But these homes are not treatment facilities, they are just substance-free environments.”
Malloy founded Oxford House in 1975, one of the first community-based approaches to stopping substance abuse.
What began as one tiny house has grown to more than 1,200 homes across the United States, each one operated independently by residents. There are more than a dozen Oxford House facilities in Illinois. At Oxford Houses, members who break their sobriety are voted out by their peers.
Under her non-profit status, Walker is also free to make her own rules. At Alabaster, though, residents can get a second chance.
“Whether you come home drunk or not, we just want you to come home and we’ll go from there,” said Walker’s daughter, Ayonda, who serves as program director and is the only other staff.
She knows what the women are facing because she struggled with addiction as well.
“We want to make sure the women have goals, or else they could just end up wherever when [they] leave,” Ayonda said.
As part of those goals, the women are expected to complete basic tasks toward reclaiming a sober life. The tenants are expected to pay their $350 monthly rent on time. And the house is closed from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the women are expected to go to work or look for a job.
Leonard Jason, director of the Center for Community Research at DePaul University, said routine and structure are invaluable when coming out of an addiction.
For the past 15 years, Jason has been studying the Oxford houses for his upcoming book, “Rescued Lives: The Oxford House Approach to Substance Abuse,” which examines how the non-profit group grew nationally.
“It’s a model for recovery because with abstinence support and fellowship, you’re likely to have a really good outcome,” Jason said.
As a result of his research, a defunct state loan program to start sober living homes was reinstated. Walker’s facility isn’t eligible to receive funds and must rely on other means of support, mainly though her client’s rent or from outside donations.
Though not licensed by the state, Walker contends her facility provides an affordable substance-free option that turns out strong results.
Since its opening in 2001, she estimates, more than 200 women have moved out of the house sober. Walker maintains that her success rate is measured not in numbers, but in personal achievements.
Jones agrees. “Before coming here, I couldn’t hold a job for three months,” she said. “Now I work at Burger King, and I’ve been there nine months. I’m having it my way.”