Program helps former addicts get ahead by teaching them how to make furniture

March 14, 1992|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer DtB

In the basement of a Reservoir Hill rowhouse, Arnold Payne quietly works at a trade that he hopes will keep him off the streets.

He's making and refinishing furniture these days. Two years ago, his business was on the streets, in pockets of the neighborhood where he sold drugs and became an addict. Now, he has kicked his habit and is living a drug-free life.

"That's something that's behind me now," said Mr. Payne, 23, a lifelong resident of Reservoir Hill. "But this is pulling me to the positive."

He carefully smoothes and polishes the wood of a worn china cabinet and beams proudly as it regains its luster.

Working with furniture has given Mr. Payne and other men and women of West Baltimore's Reservoir Hill a chance to straighten out their lives.

Furniture is made, repaired or refinished by area residents who had been involved in drug trafficking or drug use.

For many, working with furniture is perhaps the only alternative to the streets, where dealers cluster daily on corners near vacant storefronts and houses along Whitelock Street near Brookfield Avenue, while addicts wander in a lifeless daze.

To some addicts, getting out of the hard, fast, watch-your-back drug world is difficult because they have few options.

"My primary purpose is staying clean," said Rodell Bailey-El, 26, who has not used drugs for nearly two months after many years of drug use. "I'm trying to stay clean. There's not much else to do except go to my Narcotics Anonymous meeting."

Mary Tomlinson, one of the program's founders, said it keeps drug abusers off the streets.

"This is something to give them a skill to show there's something creative they can do with their hands other than selling drugs," Ms. Tomlinson said.

Ms. Tomlinson and another woman, both of whose sons had pulled themselves up from drug-troubled pasts but were unable to find steady work, developed the idea to make furniture earlier this year.

Because some of the recovering addicts could not find meaningful work, they earned money by becoming "guinea pigs" for medical experiments, Ms. Tomlinson said.

"They stopped using, but they were unemployed because no one would hire them. They needed money like everyone else," Ms. Tomlinson explained.

So far, only a handful of former drug abusers have opted for the program.

"Many of the guys out there sell drugs -- not because they want to -- but because they have to," said John Tomlinson, 24, Ms. Tomlinson's son. "They don't want to do it, but it's real hard to stop. For a lot of them, that's all they know."

Mr. Tomlinson said that after his conviction for a narcotics offense in 1990, he had trouble finding work, despite being a high school graduate and obtaining a welding certificate from a trade school.

"I applied at many places and got turned down all the time," Mr. Tomlinson said.

"It's like the government wants you to fail and get in trouble because you can't find a job," he said. "They tell you to be honest on the application, but when they see your record, hold it."

The materials for the furniture were donated by community residents, and a woodworking professional has volunteered to teach the workers.

Mr. Payne knows the street corners of Reservoir Hill very well. He's hung out on the corners, sold drugs on the corners and seen friends get shot on the corners.

He made good money on the streets, but he also spent time in prison on drug charges. Now, living that lifestyle has "played out," he said.

"It's like after you finish doing drugs you still need something to do. A lot of people won't hire because of what you've done," Mr. Payne said. "There's a lot of people who think 'Why should I stop when there's nothing else to do.' "

"A lot of guys are trying to do the right thing and get off the streets because they're sick and tired of being sick and tired."

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