In 2010, recovery housing providers and advocates started meeting at national treatment conferences and identified the need for national standards. That discussion quickly grew into weekly conference calls attended by individuals from across the United States. The need for a common language promptly became apparent. Thought leaders from different regions talked past each other because state-by-state policies and marketplaces had shaped what organically grew in their particular area. In a fragmented industry, people only know what they see or what they’ve experienced. They may not even know that anything different exists and are forced to make assumptions based on their limited personal knowledge. For example, representatives from California used the term “sober living,” which had the representatives from Pennsylvania wondering if that was the same thing as “recovery housing” in Philly. Representatives from the southeast used the term “Florida model,” which had everyone else scratching their heads and asking, “What’s what?”.

What’s What

As recovery leaders began developing a common language, several great terms were deemed too misleading, too broad, or too specific to unite the movement.

Too Misleading

Advocates tend to avoid some commonly used terms because they can be too misleading:

  • Transitional housing – Although many recovery residents choose to move out as their needs and goals change, the term “transitional housing” is commonly used to refer to living environments that, as a matter of policy, force residents out within a few months. This can be destabilizing to an individual. Some providers are forced to adopt these policies because of funding requirements or limitations, but NARR best practices promote resident-driven length of stay. Also not, that when neighborhoods hear “transitional housing,” they think of transients and fear the safety and characteristics of their community could be undermined—all reasons not to use the term.
  • Halfway House – The term “halfway house,” “quarter house,” and “three-quarter house” are inconsistently used. Some states define “halfway houses” as residential treatment. Others use “halfway house” to describe parolee housing that may not be recovery-oriented. All uses of the word can insinuate it was transitional.

Too Broad

Some terms are favorable but too broad, meaning they can include housing models that are not recovery residences:

  • Sober house – While recovery residences provide a sober living environment, housing programs (e.g., college dorms) can ban drugs and alcohol but lack other recovery supportive elements. Recovery is more than just abstinence.
  • Supportive housing – While recovery residences are supportive and housing, the term “supportive housing” can encompass something much broader. Moreover, some advocates focused on ending homelessness have begun to use “supportive housing” in a way that may not align with recovery housing.

Too Specific

Some terms specifically reference models that may fall within the larger spectrum:

  • Therapeutic Community – Often referenced by its initials, TCs, are licensed residential treatment programs. They have evolved since the 1960s, and there are several different models. While a TC could be a Level IV recovery residence, the term does not adequately describe the continuum as a whole.
  • Extend After Care – Another inconsistently used term is “extend aftercare.” This may refer to a clinical or non-clinical residential program. It could be an example of a Level IV or III recovery residence, but not it does not capture all levels of support.
  • Oxford House ™ – Only houses with an Oxford House charter should describe themselves as an “Oxford House.” Oxford House is the largest recovery housing provider, which chartered homes across the US and other countries. They are an example of a Level I recovery residence.

What’s Preferred?

Two terms, “recovery residence” and “recovery housing,” have emerged as preferred terms in the recovery movement.

“Recovery Residence”

Many in the recovery movement prefer using “recovery residences” as an umbrella term inclusive of the entire continuum. The Georgia Association of Recovery Residences (GARR) used the term “recovery residence” for decades before it was officially adopted by the National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR). Rather than trying to redefine words that may mean something different to other people, NARR chose “recovery residence.”

“Recovery” is defined as a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential. (SAMHSA)

“Residence” is defined as a place in which one lives. (Webster)

Together “recovery residences” include the spectrum of options and is where peers learn to live recovery.

“Recovery Housing”

The term “recovery housing” is strength-based and widely used. “Recovery housing” may or may not be synonymous with “recovery residences.” While some use the term interchangeably, others use “recovery housing” to refer to the non-clinical portion of the recovery residence continuum. However, different states define and regulate “clinical” services differently. A service that is considered non-clinical in one state may be regarded as clinical in another. Also note, there are a few states that define “recovery housing” as residential treatment. So, when someone uses the term “recovery housing,” make sure you know what definition they are using.