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Sober Living Vs Halfway House: Similar, But Not Synonyms

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Halfway houses and sober living homes are living arrangements that provide a home environment free of alcohol or drug use. People often use the names “sober living” vs “halfway house” interchangeably. However, these two types of residences provide different supports based on your recovery needs.

The Need for Supportive Housing

You may decide to live in a halfway house or sober living home for several reasons, such as:1

Another reason you may decide to move into a sober living home is as an alternative to going to residential treatment. Sober living homes provide moderate structure. Many people in sober living homes attend intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) or receive other outpatient addiction services.

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You may prefer to live in an environment with others working toward their recovery in an atmosphere that provides accountability. Although the costs of sober living environments vary, some individuals prefer supportive housing over the expense and restrictions of residential treatment.

Halfway Houses

A halfway house is a living arrangement for individuals who were previously in full-care facilities.2 Generally, people who live in halfway houses are transitioning from residential addiction or mental health treatment, or they may have served time in prison and are reintegrating into a life of independence.3

A halfway house may host a specific population, such as survivors of intimate partner violence or people who have previously been homeless.

Costs and Funding

The government provides partial funding for halfway houses through grants, generally at the state level. Halfway houses typically receive government grants when their business model is that of a nonprofit entity or faith-based organization.4

Residents of a halfway house are required to pay a portion of their income toward their rent. The costs of halfway houses vary depending on the number of services and amount of privacy offered.

Residents provide their own food and toiletries, although staff in the house can support residents in applying for government funding where needed, for example, applying to the supplemental nutrition assistance program.

Living Arrangements Within the Home

In a halfway house, the living arrangements vary widely depending on the house type. For example, the halfway house might be like a dormitory. In this setup, you share a single living space with multiple individuals, with bunk-bedding or multiple beds set up in a single room. Alternately, some halfway houses have smaller rooms that you share with roommates. The size of the home determines your number of housemates.

Professional Service Within the Home

Varying levels of professional staff work in halfway houses. Some halfway houses offer clinical services, such as grief counseling, as part of their program.3

Some halfway houses have life skills training provided by social workers and other behavioral health staff.

Length of Stay

A halfway house is not intended to be a permanent residence. It’s intended to be a support, with the goal of a full integration back into your independent life. The length of stay in halfway houses ranges from a couple of months to a couple of years.3

Rules and Requirements of Tenancy

The rules of a halfway house are intended to create grounding, practice, rhythm, and responsibility around life tasks, such as paying bills and completing chores. The rules are also intended to support the safety and sobriety of residents living in the home and may include: 2

  • Sobriety—Residents in halfway houses are required to be abstinent from substances, which may include random drug and alcohol testing. A positive test may result in you being asked to vacate the home.
  • Drug– and alcohol-free property—In addition to sobriety requirements, no substances or paraphernalia are allowed in halfway houses.
  • Curfew—Most halfway houses have set curfews.
  • Employment—A halfway house may require you to maintain employment, with a portion of your income applied to rent. If you do not yet have a job or lose a job, house staff may set specific expectations based on receiving job training, scheduling interviews, or submitting applications.
  • Conduct—Conduct regulations generally include rules about verbal and physical fighting, as well as honesty infractions such as using or taking others’ belongings.
  • Meeting attendance—If house meetings are held, you may be required to attend. Many halfway houses also encourage or require attendance at 12-step meetings. Some suggest or require that you work with an AA sponsor.

Sober Living Homes

Sober living homes differ from halfway houses in several ways.

Costs and Funding

Sober living homes are paid for by the individual residing in the home. Insurance rarely pays for sober living homes. However, it’s worth checking with your insurance provider to see if they might cover this cost.

Sober living homes are also not state-sponsored.4 You may qualify for a scholarship or grant funding for a sober living home provided by nonprofit organizations. Some specific sober living homes have scholarships and grants available. However, most individuals living in a sober living home pay out of pocket and are employed while living in the home to support the cost of the rent.

Sober living homes tend to follow one of two models: 1

  1. A treatment center may own sober living homes privately as an aftercare option to support your stepdown from residential care to an intensive outpatient program (IOP). A benefit of living in a home associated with your residential treatment center is that you can follow the same model of care in both your residential and IOP services. You may benefit from this consistency in your recovery.
  2. The second business model of sober living homes involves private, for-profit ownership. These sober living homes may be available to anyone in need of supportive housing in addiction recovery, regardless of their most recent treatment.

Living Arrangements Within the Home

Sober living homes offer both roommate options as well as private rooms. Sober living homes tend to have more options for privacy because of their independent business model. However, this is dependent on the specific home you choose. Typically, a sober living home has a small number of residents, generally fewer than 10.

Professional Service Within the Home

Sober living homes rarely offer professional services within the home.5 Instead, most residents will stay in a sober living home while attending IOP or outpatient treatment.

If a treatment center owns a sober living home, the treatment center may hire staff in the home, but this is rarely a clinical staff member. Instead, this staff monitors compliance with rules and may transport residents to treatment, work, or the grocery store.

If the home is independently owned, a house manager usually lives in the house. This manager is often in sobriety themselves, is a tenant of the home, and serves as a point of accountability and support when needed.1

Sober living staff may help connect residents with services such as educational and career training.

Length of Stay

The length of stay at a sober living home varies depending on your intentions moving forward. For example, if your sober living home is associated with your treatment center, you may live in this home until you are ready to step down in treatment. Alternately, you may decide to stay in this home for a longer time as you continue in outpatient treatment and continue integrating into your new life of sobriety.

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If your sober living home is associated with your treatment center, there may be a maximum length of stay.

Nontreatment affiliated sober living homes tend to offer a length of stay like any rental tenancy. For example, you will generally rent on a month-to-month basis for an indefinite amount of time and be required to give a 30-day notice if you plan to vacate the premises.

Rules and Requirements of Tenancy

The rules and requirements of a sober living home are similar to that of a halfway house. These rules include:

  • Regular random drug and alcohol testing
  • Maintaining sobriety
  • No drugs or alcohol on the premises
  • Completing household chores or assignments
  • Fulfilling attendance expectations, such as a set number of AA meetings

Additionally, a sober living home may require you to be employed, actively seeking employment, or attending educational advancement. You will likely have a curfew in a sober living home. However, these curfews are generally individual-specific, dependent on where you are in recovery.2 You are required to be civil with housemates and supply your food and toiletries.

When a Sober Living Environment Is Right for You

Living in a sober living home may help generate relationships of sobriety with like-minded individuals who can relate to the struggles and triumphs in a life of recovery.6, 7

A multi-year study on the benefits of sober living environments concluded that sober living homes are an excellent and underused modality in treatment. Researchers identified factors that provided beneficial outcomes while living in a sober community. For example, they noted that residents of sober living homes who were active in 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, had better recovery outcomes.2

Finding the Right Supportive Housing

It’s important to be aware of the risks you may encounter in a sober living environment. Although halfway houses and sober living homes support sobriety, you may encounter individuals who bring contraband to the premises, such as drugs, alcohol, or other illegal items. The benefit of a sober living home or halfway house is that the rules of living in these homes supports accountability and consequences if this occurs, such as eviction from the home.

Another risk to these communities is the history of issues with regulation and oversight. there is generally more oversight in halfway houses due to the state funding received.4

Sober living homes are not licensed by the state or state-funded. However, the National Alliance of Recovery Residences (NARR) provides a Standards and Certification Program that allows state affiliates to provide accreditation of sober living residences based on national standards.8

It is helpful to explore the reputation of a sober living home before moving in. Additionally, explore ratings and reviews from residents who have lived in the home. When possible, interview residents and house managers. When researching a new home environment, check in with your intuition and speak with your clinical team and treatment specialists to explore safe and supportive living options.

The right sober living environment can have a powerful capacity to support your recovery.

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  1. Polcin, D. L., Korcha, R., Bond, J., & Galloway, G. (2010). What did we learn from our study on sober living houses and where do we go from here? Journal of psychoactive drugs, 42(4), 425-433.
  2. Polcin, D. L., & Henderson, D. M. (2008). A clean and sober place to live: philosophy, structure, and purported therapeutic factors in sober living houses. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 40(2), 153-159.
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. (2014). What is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families. US Department of Health and Human Services.
  4. Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. (2005, November 21). Funding of Sober Living Environments. State of California – Health and Human Services Agency.
  5. Wittman, FD, Biderman F, & Hughes L. (1993). California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, ADP 92–00248. Sober living guidebook for alcohol and drug-free housing.
  6. Moos, R. H., & Moos, B. S. (2006, January 24). Rates and predictors of relapse after natural and treated remission from alcohol use disorders. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 101(2), 212-222.
  7. Polcin, D. L., & Korcha, R. (2017). Social Support Influences on Substance Abuse Outcomes Among Sober Living House Residents with Low and Moderate Psychiatric Severity. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 61(1), 51-70.
  8. National Alliance for Recovery Residences. Standards and Certification Program.
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