Mississippi Residents Say 'Not in My Backyard' to Oxford Homes

By Zachary Siegel 06/10/15

Political bigwigs have entered the fight and Oxford House Inc. may lose federal funding.

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An Oxford House is not your usual sober dwelling. Each house is financially self-supported and democratically run by the residents living there, with no live-in staff calling the shots. If you’re an Oxford House resident and one of your roommates relapses, he or she must be thrown out without question and your share of rent goes up, until a new person fills the bed.

At first glance of this model, one usually winces. “No professionals? Who watches over these ex-drug addled, probably felonious, hooligans living under one roof?”

At least that’s what neighbors have been saying of an Oxford House plopped in their upper-middle class neighborhood in Jackson, Miss. The classic “not in my backyard arguments” erupted and soon after State Sen. Will Longwitz (R) entered the fight.

“[Mississippi Department of Mental Health] has an obligation to end its relationship with Oxford House and start providing better services in a better way," Senator Longwitz wrote in an open letter to MDMH.

"I respectfully request that the MDMH stop sending taxpayer dollars to Maryland to perform a function that should be performed here in Mississippi, and that would be better performed here by Mississippians," he added.

Currently, Oxford House is the only evidenced-based sober living model approved by SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidenced-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP). The Department of Mental Health (DMH) also provides Oxford House with federal grants to operate state-by-state.

Longwitz argues these federal grants are being misspent in support of Oxford Houses and as a result recovering addicts are not being served. He is highly critical of the model and his investigations led him to determine that there is little quality control from house-to-house while new houses are opening at an “explosive rate.”

“I think it’s clear that Oxford House has been allowed to operate in Mississippi on the fast and on the cheap,” he told Mississippi Watchdog. “There has been a lack of oversight with the federal money and a total lack of questioning whether Oxford House is even operating under its own guidelines.”

Paul Malloy, founder of Oxford House Inc., wrote to The Fix: “Oxford House is now 40 years old. It works and it is interesting to note that the city of Jackson has not objected to Oxford House. Perhaps they know more about effective recovery than some elected state officials.” 

“Our data has shown that once neighbors do get to know the Oxford House residents, their attitudes become more favorable toward them and the issue of recovery in general,” said Dr. Leonard Jason, a community psychologist at DePaul University, who has been studying Oxford Houses for over two decades.

Dr. Jason’s work has also demonstrated that those who live in Oxford Houses for at least six months gain several benefits, like lower relapse rates, higher employment rates, higher average incomes, and less legal difficulty over time.

Those who are in favor and back the Oxford House model also raise the issue of cost-benefits. Senator Longwitz says funding Oxford House is a waste of taxpayer dollars and Mississippian’s could provide better services themselves. However, he has yet to offer any specific alternatives to the Oxford House model or calculate how much it would cost to replace the status quo with staffed facilities, which would then pay live-in house managers or counselors to provide therapy. 

“We have learned that with time, patience and tolerance we have been able to convince critics that Oxford House is the best and most cost effective way to assure long-term recovery,” Malloy said. “I am convinced the governor and senator will become supporters once they understand the field and Oxford House success.”

As it stands, Oxford House has yet to lose its contract to operate in Mississippi.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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