New hope at ground zero of despair

October 09, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Myra Williamson is back home. She's moving into a house just around the corner from where she grew up - and where, not so coincidentally, her downward spiral began.

"I spent most of my life in this community," Williamson said as she prepared to move into a newly refurbished home at Monroe and Lexington streets. "I became addicted here."

She had to leave town about 10 years ago to get the kind of drug treatment she felt she needed, but today, Williamson will celebrate the opening of a residential facility in which she will help others fight their own addictions - without leaving the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood.

The facility is the latest initiative by Recovery in Community, or RIC, a group that offers services and support to recovering addicts in the heart of the beast - or one of the hearts of one of the beasts - that is Baltimore's chronic drug problem. RIC works in the neighborhood that includes the Monroe and Fayette intersection made famous as "The Corner" in the book by David Simon and Edward Burns about drug abuse and dealing in inner-city Baltimore.

Mayor Sheila Dixon is scheduled to join in a ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning at RIC's new transitional home for women participating in its drug treatment programs. Williamson will be the in-house manager, and said she's "loving the thought" that she can now help provide what wasn't available to her back when she needed a place to live as she struggled toward recovery.

"I had a nice job, a home, a car, and was blowing all that," Williamson said of her use of first cocaine and then crack cocaine. "I knew I needed some help, and I started trying some out-patient programs, but it was not working."

Instinctively, she knew she needed to be in a more structured environment rather than living on her own, and a friend ended up taking her to Philadelphia, where she moved into a group home. Ultimately, she beat her addiction and even became a manager of a similar facility. On a visit to family in her old neighborhood in Baltimore, she met RIC's director, Lena M. Franklin, and eventually was hired to manage the group's new residential facility.

RIC was started in 1999 by the Abell Foundation, and its staff came to realize that a critical piece of the recovery process was housing - somewhere former addicts could live as they continued treatment and job-training programs that would help them eventually live and work on their own.

"The farther people have to go, the less likely they are to go," said Jane Harrison, who as senior program officer at the Abell Foundation helped design RIC and now serves on its board of directors. "You have to give people the tools to be able to live in the community that they're from."

In 2002, the foundation bought a vacant three-story rowhouse across the street from RIC's offices. "We invited people in the community to tell us what they need," Franklin said, "and they said we need something for women."

With a mix of public funds and donations from groups like the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, it's been renovated into a sorority-like home that can house up to 12 women. Franklin said the residents will be able to move in as soon as the house passes various residency inspections. (In something of a metaphor for the never-ending struggle of its clients, RIC, as it was working on its new housing facility, learned it would have to move from the former church rectory that served as its headquarters. It's found an alternate location in the same neighborhood.)

Those who work in drug treatment say residential programs are among the most expensive to provide and thus often in the shortest supply. Currently, Baltimore has 589 residential treatment slots for the estimated 3,000 addicts who need them at some point during the year, said Hirsh Goldberg, a spokesman for Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, which oversees the city's delivery of addiction treatment services to the uninsured and underinsured. While most won't stay for an entire year, there's usually a wait to get one of those slots, he said.

RIC focuses on long-term treatment - women will be allowed to stay in the house for as long as two years if necessary, as long as they continue in treatment and are working toward independent living.

Among the first residents of the new house will be Cherese Roberts, 33, who has been clean for a year thanks to RIC's drug treatment programs. While living in a neighborhood where drugs are so readily available might seem like it would hinder recovery, Roberts said it's been just the opposite.

"Everything out there," she said, "is showing me what I don't want to be a part of."

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