Project aims to stay afloat

Sanctuary: A plan for a hospital ship at the Port of Baltimore has stalled because of opposition from the Maryland Port Administration.


Moments after he held hands with a band of fellow dreamers and anchored his hopes to a hulking 14,000-ton hospital ship named the Sanctuary, Stephen J. Hammer contemplated his fresh commitment with these words:

"I think this is going to be the largest bummer I've ever gotten into in my life."

Six years after that inauspicious beginning, his words have proven both true and untrue. The Sanctuary, in a new coat of white paint, sits expectantly at a Locust Point pier. But so far the ship is filled only with big plans -- for a place where women will go in clean from drugs and come out a month later knowing how to balance budgets, get jobs and care properly for their kids.

With a month-to-month lease at the Port of Baltimore, the ship has no program. Without clients and grants, it is sinking into debt.

A port advisory council is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether Project Life, the nonprofit corporation that owns the Sanctuary, should be eligible for a long-term lease. Regardless of the vote, one thing is sure: The hard feelings on both sides will not go away.

To the Maryland Port Administration, the Sanctuary presents big problems. There's nothing wrong with the goal of helping addicts, port officials say. But they question whether the program belongs at a working marine terminal, with dangerous cranes and aging piers.

"It's not something the general public should have access to," says state Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes the marine terminal. "It's not suitable, not from my perspective. Not when I'm pushing to get new jobs down to the port.

"Their goal is laudable. It's recycling lives. But the berth? They should find themselves a berth."

The six years since the Sanctuary entered Baltimore waters have produced a federal lawsuit, renovation expenditures of more than $1 million in government and private money, and an atmosphere that both sides acknowledge has turned suspicious and ugly.

The fight over the Sanctuary raises difficult questions.

Is turning addicts into taxpayers economic development?

Are recovering drug addicts, as disabled people, worthy of special protections that let them live where nobody else can?

Can the strangest of bedfellows -- a struggling port and a band of stubborn do-gooders -- work together?

No one publicly disputes the need for the program. State surveys estimate that more than 68,000 women in Maryland need treatment for addiction.

Last year, 204 women were sent to the city's drug treatment courts -- women Baltimore District Judge Jamey H. Weitzman would like to be able to send to the Sanctuary.

"This program is such a wonderful, holistic approach to changing their behavior," says Weitzman, who runs the district drug-court program. "I can't tell you how excited I was when I first heard about it."

What attracts people such as Weitzman -- who has seen all sorts of programs fail to make a dent in the drug problem -- is that Project Life plans to serve women after they've gotten clean. It plans to teach them the harder task: how to start living again.

On the ship, renovated cabins with about 60 beds are ready for occupants. A large room on the main deck would be used for aerobics and aikido, to revitalize the body and clear the mind. Pistachio-colored dentists' chairs await women whose teeth might not have been cleaned for years. In clinics, staffers from the University of Maryland Nursing School would train both the recovering women and its students.

To the proponents of Project Life, the Sanctuary is uniquely equipped to minister to the casualties of America's largest unwinnable war since Vietnam -- during which it served as a Navy hospital ship, housing 25,000 wounded.

Tracking the peacetime saga of the Sanctuary is like pulling a string from a sweater. Soon the whole garment begins to unravel, and no lines or patterns are left -- just a hopeless tangle.

At the center is Project Life board member Hammer, a fast-talking former businessman and recovering addict with an admitted tendency to paranoia and a talent for making devoted friends and quick enemies. Provident Bank chairman emeritus Carl W. Stearn, also a board member, describes Hammer as "a difficult person to categorize in a usual way."

Hammer, 54, has lived a good bit of his life lurching between rock-bottom and tiptop.

He has been arrested four times for drunk driving in Maryland, the first time in 1968, while working for two trucking companies. The next 16 years were filled with business success and personal failures. Hammer would start a company or a promising new job, use speed, alcohol, downers and more, go into the hospital, come out, repeat the cycle.

"I did every treatment program in Maryland," he says. "I ran out of treatment programs before I ran out of chemicals."

In 1981, he looked at the ceiling above a Johns Hopkins Hospital treatment bed and said: "Jesus Christ, I quit."

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