Jim Martin

December 22, 2009
Jim Martin is working to help others with substance-abuse problems through the Oxford House program. NONE RON MACARTHUR PHOTO
A little over a year ago, Jim Martin hit rock bottom, homeless and broke. Drug and alcohol addiction had stripped him of everything, including his job and family. or 302-377-0485 »

The former seminary student moved into a Wilmington homeless shelter the day after he quit drinking, Sept. 2, 2008.

No one could have predicted that within a few months, he would be employed as an advocate for substance abusers and the homeless, finding shelters for men in the situation he had escaped. A stay at Oxford House in Lewes in late 2008 changed his life.

What is an Oxford House?
Each self-funded house is a place of solitude to give recovering substance abusers an affordable place to live as they transition back to normal life.

Residents must be clean for at least seven days before other residents consider them for a vote.

The first Oxford House opened in 1975 in Silver Spring, Md. Based on the premise that every member of the house has an equal voice in the affairs of the house, weekly membership meetings take place to discuss financial matters and to provide peer pressure as members help one another stay alcohol and drug free. Members pay their fair share of the expenses of the house, which is about $100 a week, and must have a job.

With a strict set of sobriety rules, random urine tests and group therapy sessions, members run each Oxford House. Any member relapsing is immediately expelled.

Members can stay at the house as long as needed; there is no time limit as with most residential substance-abuse programs. The unique program has no outside staff and is not administered by an outside agency. Members are responsible for all bills and all programs.

Jim Martin said houses are run democratically with officers. “We hold each other accountable,” he said.
Martin said Oxford houses are not halfway houses, but three-quarter houses because the houses pay their way. Members are encouraged to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous 12-step meetings.

“The houses are filled with normal guys. It’s guys trying to get back on their feet. They watch the Eagles on Sunday and go to work on Monday,” he said. “Before I was nobody, and I moved into an Oxford House and I started to feel like somebody.”

Donations can be mailed to Oxford House Inc., 101 Wayne Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20910 and write “for Delaware” on the memo line of the check.

Martin, 49, is convinced that the Oxford House concept of self-help and accountability works, and a 2005 DePaul University study tracking 900 people in Oxford House programs for more than two years backs up his claims. The study found that more than 80 percent had stayed clean and sober.

Even though his address is still Oxford House, he now helps start new houses, contacts potential landlords and moves in to get houses established.

Martin, an alcoholic and addicted to prescription medication, was able to quit cold turkey. “I had no choice,” he said. “I would either live or die – it had come to that. Nearing 50 years of age, my body could no longer take it.”

Martin said Oxford houses give those battling substance abuse and homelessness a fighting chance because the homes are a temporary safe haven from the outside world, allowing residents to get back on their feet.

“It’s like in my case. I was being slammed by 10 hammers at once,” he said. “We are giving people real solutions, and that keeps me motivated.”

Since he started, he has placed 86 men in 11 homes and started six houses on his own. There are more than 25 houses in Delaware with houses in Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and Millsboro in Sussex County.

Martin has slowly begun the process of entering the mainstream of society.

He travels the state as an outreach worker for Oxford House and lives at Oxford houses in the area. He has found a new home at Coolspring Presbyterian Church near Lewes where he has helped the church with grant writing and worked on a summer-food program for children.

A downward spiral

Martin, a functioning alcoholic who operated his own contracting business in Willow Grove, Pa., where he also served one term on the town commission, injured his back and got addicted to OxyContin as well. “I started that awful ride into the OxyContin world,” he said. “I was mixing the two just to get through the day.”

He lost his business when he was taken to court over work he didn’t complete even though he had taken a deposit. He spent a few months training to be an insurance agent, but his downward spiral was in rapid motion by then.

After 20 years of marriage, with three children, he left home in 2008, never to return. He went to the only place he knew would take him in, the House of Joseph in Philadelphia. It wasn’t long before he left to spend 30 days in Casa San Francisco in Milton and was able to obtain a minimum-wage job working for an insurance agent in the area.

In October 2008 he was accepted at an Oxford House in Lewes. “I knew as soon as I went there it was amazing. I saw the value of what they were doing. It was something special,” he said.

He said just when people think there is no way out, Oxford House offers hope. Some residents have been on the brink of suicide and have recovered as Oxford House residents.

Martin said everything that has occurred since Sept. 2, 2008, has been in God’s hands. He said the minute he put God and others first, his life changed. “It was instant and powerful,” he said.

Martin said when he hit the bottom he turned to God. “I told him I hadn’t done such a great job, and now it was his turn. God, you’ve got me now,” he said.

Martin said he had no money and no transportation. “People gave me a car and gave me a BlackBerry,” he said. “It’s a powerful thing.”

Working to establish houses

He was such a believer in the Oxford House he became a volunteer working to start new homes throughout the state. He attracted the eye of a human services organization, Connections, in Wilmington, that wanted to pay him to do what he was doing as a volunteer.

Although he is paid minimum wage, he has the use of a car, cell phone and gas card. “That’s all I need,” he said.

After he pays his rent to Oxford House and pays child support, he has only a few dollars left each month. He sees his three teenage children as much as he can.

Martin said the program is already in place; the challenge is to find landlords willing to rent. Large houses are needed because most homes house from six to eight residents. “We are in good neighborhoods,” he said. “We pay our own way; just give is a chance.”

He plans to open 100 Oxford houses over the next few years and concentrate on opening houses for women (the houses are not coed, although visitations are permitted).

Life is certainly not a bed of roses for the recovering Martin. It will take years for him to reestablish his financial situation and he has had trouble even opening a checking account, let alone getting a loan or establishing credit.

Martin said his experience has helped him understand humility. “It’s not about me. I’m just a tool in the toolbox,” he said.

More information: or 302-377-0485

• Nearly 7,000 Delawareans are homeless during the year; one-third of them because of substance abuse.
• 70 percent of incarcerated men and women are or have been substance abusers.
• An average of 76 percent of Oxford House members remain clean and sober without relapse.

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