Here’s how Wikipedia defines sober living homes: “facilities that provide safe housing and supportive, structured living conditions for people exiting rehabilitation programs. SLHs serve as a transitional environment between such programs and mainstream society.”

It’s a neat definition for what can be a messy process – bridging a gap that in the past has usually resulted in a quick return to substance use. That’s partly attributable to the relapsing nature of addictions, but also to the reality that far too many newly recovering folks return to situations and environments that are clearly not conducive to recovery. I’m talking about untreated substance users in the home, conflicts with codependents, instability, even domestic abuse. Treatment ordinarily gets the lion’s share of the blame for the inevitable failure, but given these and other barriers, it’s probably a surprise they accomplish as much as they do.

For some people, the deck is surely stacked, against recovery.

One asset for the working counselor has been the presence of solid, well-run recovery homes in the community (that’s not true for every community, unfortunately). Their presence sometimes go unnoticed because it’s the problem children that wind up in the media, the result of an incident or neighborhood complaints.

In the communities where I’ve worked, the bad ones are the exception, not the rule. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Still, it’s the counselor’s job to know the landscape and steer the client to the best option. In some areas, a sponsor or peer support worker fulfills the same function. Somebody who has the individual’s interest at heart and a solid knowledge of what’s where.

If you’re thinking of getting into the business – there’s a market for it – you should be aware of some challenges.

The NIMBY problem – often the first and most difficult obstacle to any community-based service. It usually starts with a zoning issue but seldom stops there. Sometimes it’s justified. I’ve also seen cases where too many recovery homes have been packed in one area, threatening to substantially change its character. I guarantee that’ll upset the neighbors. The goal is reintegration in the community, not the creation of a ghetto.

The occasional incident. In this field, things happen. Conflicts between residents, lapses in sobriety, those are just the most common. Not handled properly, they reinforce community fears and the prejudice that follows.

Boundary issues – I’ve sometimes received complaints from therapists about their therapy patients being thrown out of the house for some minor offense. I’m sure that does happen, but often when I investigate I discover the offense wasn’t so minor after all. The Big Three are drug use, stealing,  and smoking indoors. It isn’t hard to understand: when you live in a house with strangers, these behaviors have a viral quality. Fortunately, most sober living homes are single-sex. Still, I’ve seen some turn into the Love Boat overnight. Management must stay alert.

Financing. A recovery home can be difficult to support. There’s rarely outside funding, so residents have to begin work and paying rent within a few weeks. Vacancies can be a real problem. Several therapists have shared their suspicions that homes are just looking for excuses to throw people out, but the incentive is more likely to be on the other side. I know of one busy rehab that received daily faxes listing openings at all the recovery homes in the surrounding area. Interviews were often on a same-day basis.

A good treatment program keeps a list of available resources on every counselor’s desktop. It’s continually updated to reflect changes in management, rates, requirements, rules and regulations. That should include any problems at the house that might make it unsuitable for a particular client.

It’s just good case management. And in terms of program outcomes? It can make an outsized difference for the better.