A Baltimore addict's odyssey

January 23, 1995|By Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell | Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell,Sun Staff Writers

FRENCH CAMP, Calif. -- Jack Gordon Hill Jr. knows he's not very popular these days. He knows a lot of taxpayers hate the idea that he's getting $458 a month from Social Security simply because he disabled himself with drugs and alcohol.

He has friends on the street who get the checks and use them to buy dope and booze -- hard-core addicts who could care less that they are tempting Congress to wipe out the Supplemental Security Income program for substance abusers.

But he also wants you to understand that it's the only lifeline for people like him who are serious about getting themselves cleaned up and back to work.

"It's like I been falling in a bottomless pit all my life and all the sudden there was this one thin branch sticking out," said the 41-year-old Baltimore native in a July interview. "I grabbed it. Now, I'm climbing out."

Six months later, he would find that the climb was longer than he thought.

Last summer, he was full of hope. The one-time beautician from Hampden sat on the edge of his bed in a treatment center in the middle of the California desert and gently cupped a kitten in his scarred hands. Her name was Serenity, something he said he had finally found after more than two decades.

He verged on tears as he described how his life was torn by cocaine and liquor. The infant son he put up for adoption. The two small daughters he abandoned in Baltimore. The ruined marriage. The years in jail for petty theft, shoplifting and )R burglary.

"I have a lot of apologies to make to a lot of people, especially my kids," he said.

He was interrupted by his roommate crying out in his sleep. Bathed in sweat, shivering beneath a rough wool blanket, the other man twisted in his sheets through the first stage of heroin withdrawal.

Jack Hill returned to the question at hand: Why should taxpayers be willing to continue giving checks to addicts?

"SSI saved my life," he said. "If it wasn't for SSI, I'd still be out there on the street."

Six months later, after graduating from the program, he was back on the same dismal street corner in nearby Stockton -- stoned and stumbling, with federal cash in his pocket and a head full of drugs.

"He left here clear-eyed and looking like he would make it," said Craig Wooden, director of the clinic. "Now, he's wiped out again. The fact is that 80 percent of them relapse without intensive follow-up, but there's only so much we can do for them."

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