Back on Track

Oxford House provides individuals recovering from addictions with a home to get back on track

Since 1995, the Oxford House Foundation has helped hundreds of people suffering from alcohol and drug addictions rebuild their lives. The tenants who live in the homes managed by Oxford House all share struggles with alcohol or drugs. However, their backgrounds and stories are as varied as the neighbourhoods they live in.

Scarlet, who wishes to remain anonymous, is among the tenants. Her story starts in the late ’80s when she began drinking socially while earning her business degree at the University of Alberta.

But after graduating in 1987, drinking on weekends turned into drinking during the week until she started calling in sick to work and missing family events. She also noticed that her social circle was changing.

“I graduated to the heavy drinkers because they were the funnest to be around,” Scarlet says. “I didn’t want to hang around people who were just going to have one drink and then say they’re done.”

By the early ’90s, Scarlet’s addiction had taken a serious toll on her personal and professional life and she began seeking help for the first time. She discovered AA and began working the program with mixed results. She managed to maintain sobriety for a month here and there, but relapse was always just around the corner until 1997 when she began five healthy years on the wagon.

Between 1997 and 2002 she ran a marathon, bought a condo, travelled to Europe and repaired her relationship with her family. But given the nature of her disease, alcohol crept back into her life. She relapsed for a year, got back on track and the on-again-off-again cycle continued until 2007 when her mother passed away.

The sudden loss put Scarlet into a downward spiral. She lost her job a year after her mother’s death.

“Not having a job, I would drink every day and it got worse and worse,” she says. “I sold the condo and I had a bit of money, but I was not working and I was drinking every day so I got sicker and sicker and was alone, isolated and not accountable to anyone.”

Then in November 2012 Scarlet hit bottom. She went into her garage, closed the doors and started her car.

Scarlet is incredibly fortunate that she didn’t succeed in taking her life. She was taken to hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning where two very important things happened.

The first was losing the support of her family who, after years of watching Scarlet destroy her life, finally took a tough love approach. Scarlet says she’s grateful to them for cutting her off from all family ties because “it finally caused me to really get my act together.”

The second was her discovery of the Oxford House Foundation, which provides addicts with a home and support network to help them rebuild their lives.

Oxford House was founded in Calgary (where it manages 22 homes) in 1995 and expanded to Edmonton in November 1999 where it now operates eight homes that house up to five tenants each. The houses blend seamlessly into their residential neighbourhoods. This speaks to the organization’s belief that a tightly knit support group in a home-like setting is crucial to recovery.

And on December 31, 2012 Scarlet found herself on the doorstep of Oxford’s Capilano House with a couple of suitcases and her Maltese puppy Trigger.

“When they said, ‘yes’ I was so grateful I was crying,” she says. “I was so happy because I didn’t know where we were going to go – that’s as close to homeless I’ve ever been.”

Oxford’s Edmonton properties are managed by Chuck (who also wishes to remain anonymous), a former air force serviceman, and boilermaker who, after struggling with his own alcohol addiction, has been sober for the last 40 years. One of Chuck’s primary roles is to oversee the intake of new tenants. This begins with an application form and interview before he schedules a meeting between the potential tenants and existing housemates, who make the final decision.

“We try to mix and match different types of addictions and demographics,” Chuck says, noting that’s fairly easy considering the diversity of people who suffer from addiction.

Over the years Chuck has seen politicians, doctors and pro athletes come through the door. “Addiction doesn’t discriminate – it’s important the housemates have a say about who moves in.”

Scarlet says that living with people who understand addiction is invaluable. Their shared life experience enables them to provide each other with encouragement and support while they work their respective AA programs (tenants must attend a minimum of two meetings per week) and tackle their issues.

Chuck is also responsible for maintaining the houses. This hasn’t always been easy, and Scarlet recalls the condition of Capilano House when she first moved in.

“The bathroom downstairs was the size of an airplane toilet,” she laughs. “You could barely turn around in the shower, and at first I thought, ‘How can they live here?'”

“If there is anyone out there struggling with addiction please know that you’re not alone. There are people who want to help.”

The kitchen was also a headache. Its minimal counter space made it nearly impossible for all five women to make breakfast at the same time. Mealtimes became so claustrophobic that Scarlet began eating in her room, which she admits was a bad habit.

Then, in April 2014 Chuck received a grant of $32,123 from Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) to help renovate Oxford House’s Edmonton properties. Through ECF’s support (and the generosity of other funding agencies including the Stollery Charitable Foundation), Chuck was able to remodel the bathroom, kitchen, floors, deck and roof in Capilano House.

“Respect brings respect,” Chuck says about the importance of the renovations. “When people are able to live in a well maintained home, it’s easier to respect not only the property but themselves and each other.”

Scarlet says that Capilano House truly feels like a home, and being able to live with decency has enabled her to rebuild her life. In the three years that she’s been there, Scarlet has made leaps and bounds in her recovery and currently holds a contract position in healthcare sales, which she hopes will become fulltime this summer. If that happens, she’ll be ready to move out on her own again.

“Oxford House saved my life,” says Scarlet. “If there is anyone out there struggling with addiction please know that you’re not alone. There are people who want to help.”