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Making a new home for the holidays

Recovering addicts rebuild their lives at local Oxford houses


by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Roseanne Carter is wrapping gifts for the children at Oxford House, a home for recovering addicts. Making the Portland house festive is a gift for the women who live there while rebuilding their lives. TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTTThe women of Oxford House have already planned out their Christmas dinner. Monnie Burniston will cook turkey, or ham, if Brandi Stephens gets her way. Either way, Monnie insists she’s making homemade cranberry sauce, not the canned stuff Brandi prefers.

Elizabeth Smith will bake cheesecake and a ton of cookies, nothing unusual there since she bakes cookies most nights.

The Christmas tree went up last week, with lights and ornaments purchased at a neighborhood dollar store. It sits in front of the living room window, but the five women who live in the Southeast 165th Avenue house don’t expect the neighbors to drop by and admire their decorations.

Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, but the gift exchange will take place the Sunday before, because not all the residents’ children will be around for the big day. And for these women, celebrating together, and with as much family as they can muster, is much more important than the day on which it occurs.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - A sobriety coin holds the house key to the garage at the womens Oxford House on Southeast 165th Avenue.Elizabeth, Monnie, Brandi, Roseanne Carter and Lorri Erickson are all in recovery. Their nondescript ranch house looks no different from the others on this quiet street in East Portland. But these women — three community college students, one soon to be a student and one full-time waitress — are hard-core heroin and methamphetamine addicts struggling with recovery.

They have moved past inpatient and outpatient addiction treatments, some of which took place in prison and jail. In a house that has none of the hanging-on feel of a halfway house, all are in the next step, the most critical step according to many addiction specialists, who say transitioning back into society is where most addicts relapse.

Experts say that becoming clean and sober through treatment can be easier than staying clean and sober back out on your own. Old friends and old haunts trigger neurological pathways associated with drink and drugs. The Oxford House model — there are 46 in the Portland area and about 150 in the state — offers an alternative that addiction specialists universally praise.

Here come the holidays

Oxford Houses require virtually no public subsidy. They operate democratically, with residents voting on how the household will be run.

They are self-supporting, with each resident contributing about $400 a month for rent and utilities. And there is one more inviolate rule posted above the dining room table: any resident who drinks alcohol or uses drugs is immediately expelled.

And now the holidays have arrived.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT -  Elizabeth Smith says group activities are crucial to keeping her housemates in good spirits during the holidays, when many Oxford House residents are prone to relapse.Most of the women at Oxford House don’t have families they can visit for the holidays. Two will be separated from their children. All will have ample time during the next few weeks to think about what they have lost, the people they’ve pushed away, the could-have-beens and I’m-sorries that might have made a difference.

Elizabeth serves as a chapter and state officer for Oxford House. One of her jobs is to deliver 24-hour notices of eviction when an Oxford House member fails a drug test. There are 11 houses encompassing 87 beds in her chapter, and most months she has to tell two or three residents they must move out.

In the past two weeks, she’s had to serve 11 eviction notices and she’s helped box up the belongings of one resident who died from a drug overdose.

Experience has taught her that during the next few weeks the rate will increase.

Not a typical setting

But not at this Oxford House, and not if Elizabeth can do anything about it. She says in other houses, especially houses where men live, she sees too few group activities, residents acting like those in a dormitory rather than in a fraternity or sorority.

Group activities at this Oxford House are about more than having fun or celebrating, she says. They are also about fighting off a sense of isolation, and temptation.

“This is why we do these things, why we have this unity,” says Elizabeth. “Because there are so many people who don’t have family and it is really hard for them.”

All addicts and alcoholics are more vulnerable to relapse during the holidays, says Leonard A. Jason, a DePaul University community psychologist who has studied the Oxford House model.

The most important factor affecting abstinence, Jason says, is the people around the recovering addict. During the holidays, for those in recovery that often means visits to families, where others are drinking.

Jason says the data show that it takes at least six months to effectively change the social network of people coming out of addiction, but for those who stay, relapse rates at Oxford Houses are about half the rates experienced by addicts trying to stay clean in traditional, larger recovery settings.

“People need role models,” Jason says. “People need folks who are helping them take the next step in recovery. You have successful role models and middle-class lifestyle. You have people who give you job leads and give you hope,” Jason says. “The Oxford House system does not ghettoize those in recovery.”

Ed Smith, nine years clean and sober and now an Estacada city councilor, lived in a Southeast Portland Oxford House for three years. Smith says the holidays were always a time he started questioning his sobriety.

“When I was in addiction, once Halloween hit it was all downhill,” Smith says. “I’d lost my family, I didn’t have anybody, all these feelings. And that progresses through the holidays. So in my addiction, it gave me more excuses.”

Some, especially those in the early stages of recovery, aren’t ready for Oxford House, Smith says. They may need the traditional managed housing model of larger-scale residential recovery.

“In managed housing there’s somebody there, the house manager, to keep track of you. At Oxford House, there’s nobody standing over you, but there’s people holding you up,” he says.

‘Like who I had become

That is exactly how the women on 165th Avenue see it. Elizabeth, 35, has been at the house a little more than two years. She came from a solid, middle-class family in Salem but became addicted to heroin at 16. A year later her parents sent her to get inpatient treatment, but she stayed addicted to one substance or another despite their best efforts. She has an 11-year-old son who lives with an aunt in Southern Oregon and a 5-year-old son whom she put up for adoption.

“I basically lost about 10 years of my life,” she says.

After an ultimatum from her family and 7 1/2 months of treatment in Portland in 2010, she needed a place to stay. But Elizabeth admits her commitment to sobriety and the house was far from absolute at the start. She told herself she’d give the house and sobriety on the outside two or three months. Two months later she told herself she’d give it four or five months.

“I was not able to tell myself I will never use again,” Elizabeth says. “It’s really nice to be able to hold on to that little nugget of, ‘Maybe someday I can.’ “

Five months became a year. A year became two years. Financial aid came through and art and math classes at Mt. Hood Community College became engaging. And that maybe someday voice disappeared.

“I started liking who I had become,” Elizabeth says.

Elizabeth will spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with her family, but she will make sure she is back at the house on 165th Avenue for Christmas night dinner. She doesn’t want to disappoint her housemates, and besides, she says, “I love Christmas here.”

In addition, Elizabeth is keenly aware of how much she owes to her housemates.

“If I hadn’t had Oxford House, I honestly don’t know if I’d be alive,” she says.

Private space

The newest arrival at the house, 28-year-old Monnie, dreams of attending culinary school someday. Actually, cooking school would be a prelude; the big dream is to open a restaurant called Mad Mo’s with her 4-year-old daughter Madeline, with whom she shares a bedroom.

Monnie, formerly addicted to meth and alcohol, is still on probation for a drug charge. She’s only been at the house for six weeks, but she and Madeline have become fixtures in the kitchen, where Madeline likes to show off her talents cracking eggs and separating yolks from whites, and generally ramping up the energy level around the house.

The small house on 165th Avenue is about to become more crowded. Roseanne, originally from West Linn, has lived at the house for six months, after 16 years as a meth and heroin addict. In January she will regain custody of her 10- and 8-year-old boys, who will share a bunk bed in Roseanne’s bedroom.

Roseanne says she had gone through addiction treatment a number of times but could never make it stick. She says the structure and support of Oxford House are making a difference this time; she has been clean and sober for nine months total. And yet, she is starting to look for her next home.

A graphic design student at Mt. Hood Community College, Roseanne says she recognizes that moving away from her support system could be dangerous. But that one bedroom gets awful crowded with her boys in there (they already stay on the weekends).

“It is really hard, especially if you’ve had a lot of years in prison, a lot of years in jail or treatment centers,” Roseanne says.

A little loud

Men and children are the two flash points around the house, Roseanne says. A series of house meetings (after a few conflicts on boyfriends staying overnight) has resulted in a house rule — women can have a man stay overnight once a week, but the guest has to be approved by a vote of the residents.

As for support, Roseanne says she will still see Brandi and Liz at school and she expects to stay in contact with all the women at the house, somehow.

Brandi moved into the house on a day in June 2011 that was also her 26th birthday and the day she graduated from addiction treatment. She started using meth at 17 and has been to prison twice on drug charges.

Brandi says she hasn’t enjoyed the holidays since her mother died of cirrhosis of the liver eight years ago. But housemate Lorri has become her best friend, and the two of them took charge of getting the Christmas tree and, yes, with three children and five adults on one floor (with a basement) the house sometimes gets a little loud, even irritating, but Brandi hopes to stay on at least another year.

“I love it here. I love these women,” Brandi says.