Rescued from Baltimore's streets

September 04, 2001|By Lauren Siegel

HENRY IS a 44-year-old sober alcoholic who has returned to school after 29 years of drinking, mental illness, homelessness and incarceration.

While his story illustrates the importance of substance abuse treatment and recovery, it also serves as a powerful reminder that it is never too late to make positive changes in one's life.

Henry was one of four children. A violent, alcoholic father dominated his family, physically and verbally abusing his wife and kids for many years. One day, as his father beat his mother, Henry and his brothers and sisters watched their mother point a gun and shoot their father in self-defense. The father was killed instantly; the mother was convicted of murder.

The children were placed in foster care, where Henry continued to be abused and mistreated. A high school dropout, Henry ran away from his foster parents and did whatever he could to survive. For years, he frequented jail, group homes, treatment programs and shelters. He grew increasingly addicted and disconnected from others. Soon, Henry was drinking daily as he lived on the street.

I first met Henry in 1993, as he was begging in downtown Baltimore. He would sit on a corner, proffering a filthy Styrofoam cup.

Cuts, bruises and stitches marred Henry's face, the result of physical assaults or alcohol-related accidents and seizures. Henry was frequently beaten and robbed by people looking for cash. As his social worker, I was on the phone with hospital emergency room staff, paramedics and physicians regularly.

They all said the same thing: Henry should enter treatment. He should stop drinking. He should receive mental health services. He should take medicine. This was good advice, but it seemed nearly impossible for Henry to follow through on any of it.

As anyone who has ever quit smoking or adapted to the loss of a loved one knows, major behavioral change is a difficult process. The initial challenge shifts from one of seeming impossibility when complicated by a lack of housing, no family, no income and a sense hopelessness about one's circumstances.

We tried baby steps with Henry. While this sage advice may seem simple, it is not part of the traditional approach in addiction treatment, which stresses detoxification and total sobriety. These steps often serve as prerequisites for entering other programs such as transitional housing or vocational rehabilitation.

Abstinence was not working for Henry. Sobriety was not the first step for him. He continued to drink for years as we worked to resolve his homelessness. We helped him apply for state and federal benefits. We arranged for him to see mental health professionals.

We convinced him of his need for medical care. When he received financial assistance, we found him a rented room.

Frequently, he required assistance to apply for benefits, schedule appointments, replace lost medications, etc. Henry and I maintained a dialogue about reducing the harm caused by his use of drugs and alcohol.

His periods of sobriety grew longer. He began to call me with questions and concerns. Gradually, he began to distance himself from his more destructive friends. While he continued to drink, Henry began to develop an appreciation for the person he was when he was sober. I tried to continually remind myself -- and him -- of the changes he had made.

Earlier this year, building on years of small, slow, painstaking successes, Henry began attending a local 12-step program two or three times a day. He made new friends, who provided a support system for him. They even helped him move into a one-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood; the Section 8 program covers his rent.

Henry's success, however astounding, was not accomplished by a slam-dunk into sobriety.

In June, with support from a Pell grant, Henry attended two classes at a local community college with hopes of one day entering nursing. He completed them both this summer and did well. He will enter a local community college this fall.

I have a copy of his college admission letter on the wall, above my desk. To Henry and me, it is just as beautiful as a diploma.

Lauren Siegel is a social worker for the nonprofit Health Care for the Homeless, which operates a clinic in downtown Baltimore.

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