The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Paul Molloy, co-founder of housing program for addicts, dies at 83

J. Paul Molloy, a lawyer who was a founder and the principal driving force behind Oxford House, a program of housing recovering addicts and alcoholics in residential settings. (Jane W. Molloy)

In the early 1970s, J. Paul Molloy was a young lawyer on Capitol Hill who had a key role in drafting legislation that created Amtrak and other federal programs. He was also an alcoholic whose drinking would eventually cost him his job, his family and his home.

For a couple of months in 1975, he found himself living on the streets and begging strangers for money before he entered a rehabilitation program. He moved to a county-run halfway house in Silver Spring, Md., to recover but soon learned that the facility was about to close.

Instead of being left to their own fates, Mr. Molloy and other residents decided to take over the house themselves, paying the rent and utilities, cooking the meals and keeping watch over one another’s path to recovery.

They called their experiment in group living and joint sobriety Oxford House. It was the first step in a nationwide movement, now almost 50 years old, that has been credited with helping thousands of people overcome addiction and lead productive lives.

Mr. Molloy was chief executive of Oxford House until his death at 83 on June 11 at his home in Silver Spring. The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Jane Molloy.

A patient listener and persuasive speaker, Mr. Molloy was in some ways his own best example of the importance of a second chance in life. When he was working as Republican counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, he said he would draft legislation on cocktail napkins while chasing shots of Canadian Club whiskey with Budweiser beer.

“I wrote everything on these napkins, and my secretary would bring them back to the Senate Office Building and type ’em up,” Mr. Molloy told The Washington Post Magazine in 1989. “And the sweat off the Budweiser bottles caused some inkblots on those napkins. And I’m sure it’s in those inkblots that were the words that would have made Amtrak profitable … But that’s what you get when you have a drunk writing laws.”

He also had a violent streak when he was drinking and could be bitingly sarcastic toward co-workers and his family.

“He was a really nasty, mean drunk,” Jane Molloy recalled in an interview.

After 15 years of marriage, she kicked her husband out of the house in 1975, filed for divorce and obtained a court order that landed him in a hospital psychiatric ward. During his homeless period, Mr. Molloy threw away his wedding ring, then in a moment of remorse, crawled through the gutters trying to find it. He never did.

“I’d ended up about as low as a Republican counsel to a Senate committee can end up,” he said.

Through Alcoholics Anonymous and the intervention of friends, Mr. Molloy quit drinking and began to reclaim his life. When he landed another job on Capitol Hill, he was warned, “One drink, and you’re fired.”

Perhaps the most important part of his recovery, however, was Oxford House, the group home in Silver Spring where he lived for more than two years. (The name derived from the Oxford Group, a religious organization whose ideas were embraced by AA.)

Mr. Molloy and the other residents devised the basic rules of self-government that have shaped Oxford House ever since. First, all decisions would be made democratically, with a group vote. Second, every resident would contribute equally to the rent and household duties. And, most important, anyone using drugs or alcohol would be expelled.

Another key element of the plan was that there was no deadline for moving out: People could live at Oxford House as long as they wanted, if they followed the rules.

Recovery worked best, Mr. Molloy found, when addicts cut all ties to the people and places that had tempted them in the past. For that reason, Oxford House locations were usually rented houses in stable, single-family neighborhoods.

“All the counselors said, ‘This is never going to work because the inmates can’t run the asylum. It’s going to be a drunk house,’ ” Mr. Molloy said in 1990.

But something about the simplicity of the program seemed to work. Residents accompanied one another to rehab meetings and treatment programs. Anyone who relapsed was booted out — but told how to seek help.

Within two years, other Oxford House locations were sprouting up in the Washington area. The houses often encountered opposition from residents concerned that they would be living near a group of men (and sometimes women) with criminal records and addiction problems.

When an Oxford House location opened near Chevy Chase Circle in Washington in 1977, Mr. Molloy “asked for patient tolerance,” Steven Polin, Oxford House’s general counsel — and a former resident himself — said in an interview. “For the most part, people find out we’re not going anywhere — and we’re good neighbors.”

The Chevy Chase house became a fixture of the neighborhood, and when the property was sold after more than 30 years, neighbors held a block party for current and past residents of the house.

In the 1980s, the Oxford House idea expanded to other states. It received a boost after Mr. Molloy successfully lobbied for passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which established a fund to help provide start-up loans for groups opening residential recovery locations like those of Oxford House. The group also receives funding from state agencies and foundations.

Oxford House officials cite a long-running study by Chicago’s DePaul University indicating that people completing one year of residency maintain a sobriety rate as high as 80 percent.

“I guarantee you it will work, and it will cost you nothing,” Mr. Molloy said as he drummed up support. “The houses work in each and every case if you put them in good neighborhoods and throw out anybody who relapses.”

When some communities tried to keep Oxford House from renting in their neighborhoods, Mr. Molloy and his lawyers went to court. Oxford House won a U.S. Supreme Court victory in 1995 against the city of Edmonds, Wash., on grounds that the city’s efforts to block the group home violated provisions of the Fair Housing Act.

There have been cases where Oxford House locations have been closed after local objections, but Mr. Molloy sought to be the voice of reassurance.

“Heck, all drunks and druggies are con artists,” he told the Portland Oregonian in 2020. “If a neighbor doesn’t like you, you mow her lawn every week.”

John Paul Molloy was born Aug. 3, 1938, in Bennington, Vt., and grew up in Arlington, Vt. His father was a grocery store clerk, and his mother was a homemaker who took in laundry.

Mr. Molloy was a 1961 graduate of the University of Vermont, where he met his future wife, Jane Wells, on the debate team. Both of them graduated from law school at Catholic University in 1965. She went on to have a four-decade career as a Commerce Department lawyer and policy analyst.

Mr. Molloy worked for the old Civil Service Commission before going to Capitol Hill, where he served on the staff of Sen. Winston L. Prouty (R-Vt.), then later on Senate and House committees. He worked for the law firm of Isham Lincoln & Beale from 1981 until it was dissolved in 1988, then continued to be the driving force behind Oxford House.

According to chief operating officer and incoming CEO Kathleen Gibson, Oxford House has more than 20,000 residents at more than 3,300 homes across 44 states and several foreign countries. Hundreds of thousands of people have been through the program.

In 1988, after 13 years apart, Mr. Molloy and his former wife remarried.

“The fact is,” she said when her husband was profiled on “60 Minutes” in 1990, “when he’s not drinking, he’s the nice guy that I married the first time.”

In addition to his wife, of Silver Spring, survivors include their five children, Elizabeth Molloy and Robert Molloy, both of Silver Spring, Mark Molloy of Winchester, Mass., James Molloy of Brookline, Mass., and Sarah Jackson of Arlington, Mass.; a brother; and eight grandchildren.