Sweeping out the old lures of addiction Shelter program: Three agencies combine forces to treat drug-addicted homeless men, then provide jobs and housing for them.

March 10, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Laurie Schwartz, president of Downtown Partnership, figured more than four years ago that panhandlers holding signs, "Willing to work for food," were willing to work for food. It wasn't that simple.

"I was idealistic," said Ms. Schwartz, whose organization links businesses and public agencies to improve the downtown scene. "We began hiring homeless men off the street as sweepers. The problem was once they got their first paycheck, they disappeared -- usually to feed their drug addiction, not to pay their rent or to buy food. We quickly saw they needed more than a paycheck."

Ms. Schwartz puzzled over the problem with Tim Williams, who oversees the South Baltimore Station shelter drug-treatment program, and Gregory Cantori, whose Light Street Housing Corp. provides homes for low-income people. They forged an unusual three-pronged approach, which, after two years, is starting to pay off in downtown Baltimore with cleaner streets and cleaner sweepers.

"We three -- Tim, Greg and I -- exploit each other's strengths," Ms. Schwartz said, "and can offer recovering addicts support 24 hours a day."

The triangle program, Support for a Change works this way:

Drug-addicted homeless men enter the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter Inc. for screening, acceptance into temporary housing and addiction treatment. After being clean for an acceptable period, they are hired by the partnership as "Clean Sweep Ambassadors," starting at $4.50 an hour with health benefits. They transfer to transitional apartments in houses owned by Light Street Housing. Ten are ambassadors now. After two years, they look for other jobs.

Expected to graduate when he gains other employment is James A. Lee, a recovering addict who says he's been drug-free for three years and is acutely aware that sweepers are ousted if they stray.

"I love the job, I made bad choices before, I have a new life now," said Mr. Lee, one of 28 uniformed sweepers who pick up trash (8,000 pounds last year), remove graffiti, weed tree wells, repaint benches and fire hydrants, clear vacant lots and chat with passersby and business people.

That all 10 of the formerly homeless sweepers are recovering addicts reflects a strong belief of the triangle founders -- most homeless people are substance abusers; unless you treat that, giving them jobs, housing and handouts is useless.

Ms. Schwartz secured funding from a federal block grant and the Abell Foundation to start the treatment-jobs-housing program.

"It's been so good, we'll be adding to the 10 from now on," said Everett Fullwood, a 25-year Baltimore city police veteran who directs all the sweepers and their two crew chiefs. "The guys are focused on their recovery and their work on the street. They're absolutely great."

Mr. Lee, 44, a former insulation mechanic, said his life was a mess before a jail term for shoplifting and the triangle program freed him from drugs.

"I did nine months in 1993 for boosting. I was homeless on and off for five years before that. I couldn't hold jobs. Drugs. I was killing myself. I wanted to change. A friend told me about South Baltimore Station. I went there Nov. 4, 1993, a week after I got out of jail. I'll never forget that day."

Mr. Lee was accepted into a no-nonsense drug recovery program run by Mr. Williams and the Rev. John Seaman, a Presbyterian minister, at the former firehouse (hence the name Station) at 142 West St. The 45 residents -- the program's capacity -- live there from three to nine months. As part of the bargain, they support each other.

Mr. Lee met strict rules and procedures. South Baltimore Station has mandatory daily treatment based on the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, medical evaluation by Dr. David Barclay's team from the University of Maryland, barracks-like beds and footlockers, chores and a monthly fee system of from $25 to $125 for those with outside jobs.

After initial counseling, he was hired by Downtown Partnership as one of its new Clean Sweep Ambassadors in March 1994. Mr. Lee moved to another temporary shelter until Light Street housing became available in September 1994. The 10 triangle residents, in three rental houses on Light and Hanover Streets, share kitchens and bathrooms and have private bedrooms.

Mr. Lee stayed a year, paying the required $200 a month, before moving out on his own in September, into a house he purchased with his fiancee in West Baltimore. He has continued treatment on West Street in keeping with the program's three-year commitment to participants.

"Support for a Change has been a huge success," Mr. Seaman said. "I was a bit cynical at first. I was concerned this was a handout, giving them too much. But, instead, we give them opportunities. Just two have relapsed.

"About 1,000 people have lived here since 1991. We're getting better as we go on. Last year, 30 per cent of 180 residents completed the drug treatment program successfully and went on to transitional housing."

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