John’s eyes were red and unfocused. He couldn’t stand still but took a few steps into the parking lot, then kicked the railing of the stairs leading to the second floor. “They set me up, man,” he told me. “I swear I’m clean. I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t take nothing. I’m scared even to take aspirin!” The man had just flunked a urine test that showed cocaine in his system.
He was about 40, with a tanned, craggy face and a ponytail, jeans, and a red T-shirt. More importantly, he was scared and furious. He ran into the parking lot again to shout at another man walking down the drive carefully carrying a paper cup of urine for a second test. “Hey, man, you set me up!”
John had already spent 20 weeks here at Casa Raphael, a transitional housing program providing substance-abuse rehabilitation in Vista. The program requires a commitment of 9 to 12 months and can take up to 120 men. But for John, failing his urine test meant immediate expulsion, then 2 more months in jail for violating the terms of his probation. This was his second visit to Casa Raphael, and before coming this time, he’d spent 4 months in jail. “But I’m clean, I swear it. They’re setting me up!”
Even so, he seemed high. His red and bleary eyes, his shaking hands seemed to be evidence of drugs. In California 70,000 people, 75 percent of the state’s total parolees, are sent back to prison each year for parole violations — such as failing a drug test — for an average of five and a half months. They take up 20 percent of the prison beds and cost the state one billion a year. More than half the men at Casa Raphael — clients, they’re called — come from the prison system; either they are paroled directly to Casa Raphael or they are already on probation or they receive what is referred to as a nudge from the judge: the choice between jail and Casa Raphael.
So I thought John would be headed back to jail, but 15 minutes later everything had changed. The parole department test on his urine had turned out negative. He was happy, his hands weren’t shaking, he was walking straight, and even his eyes seemed less red. “I told ’em,” John said cheerfully. “I told them all along.”
A minute later I saw Mark Gregory, intake coordinator and case manager at Casa Raphael. He was nearly as upset as John had been. “I’d hate to exit someone over a fucked-up test. I’d have nightmares about it. And I was that close to it. He really looked like he’d been using.”
Located on a hill above Postal Way in Vista, the buildings of Casa Raphael began life as a motel — a two-story L-shaped arrangement with a parking lot in the center. Down the hill is Casa Base, a grouping of small buildings where men spend the first six weeks. Casa Raphael opened in 1993 and then was totally restructured in 1999. It is part of the Alpha Project in downtown San Diego, which assists homeless men and women throughout the county in a “work-to-recovery program” and runs the Neil Good Day Center on 17th Street and provides over 700 units of affordable housing. Ninety-seven percent of the staff of Alpha Project is made up of recovering addicts and alcoholics, and many began as clients at Casa Raphael.
To be accepted by Casa Raphael, the men have to have a history of addiction and homelessness, be unemployed, and have no source of income, other than unemployment and/or veterans’ benefits. They must be between 18 and 62, have two to three days clean and sober, be able to work, and have no prior convictions for sex offenses or arson. The program is broken into three steps. In the first, men spend six weeks at Casa Base in a rigorous “hawking program”; that is, they get up at 4:00 a.m., and by 5:30 they are out on busy intersections in Vista, Encinitas, Carlsbad, San Marcos, and Escondido selling the North County Times, about 10,000 copies a week. In the afternoon they take journaling and AIDS-awareness workshops and a 25-hour video course entitled Framework for Recovery, created by Gordon Graham and aimed at men and women with a substance-abuse problem. Graham himself had spent 22 years in prison, and the course is high on building self-esteem, a sense of personal responsibility, and, most of all, instilling a sense of hope. The men also have to write a full-page journal entry each evening. They are allowed no visitors in the first six weeks, though they can make phone calls. They are also restricted to the property except for work assignments. At the end of Step I, the men are tested on what they have learned, and if they pass, they move on to Step II, which also entails moving into a room up the hill at Casa Raphael.
In the 14 weeks of Step II the men are assigned either to an outside work project or some work at Casa Raphael — working in the kitchen, doing building and grounds maintenance, or working in security. Casa Raphael has its own construction crew that takes outside jobs, and they have teams that work for the City of San Diego in cutting brush, removing graffiti, and picking up trash. Those men without a high school diploma work for their GED, and all take 12 hours in basic computer training. They can also take extension classes from Palomar College. And they must take a two-week workshop in anger management. At the end of the step is another test.
In Step III the men have an outside job paying at least $8 an hour, which they must have a minimum of 90 days before they can apply for graduation. Thirty percent of their salary goes into a savings account, and they must save $1500 before they can leave. Also during Step III they attend weekly team meetings and self-help counseling meetings. And hundreds of hours are spent doing what they call “giving back,” volunteering for community service and working at Casa. The money earned by the men pays 80 percent of Casa Raphael’s expenses, though it operates on a shoestring and is always in need of money.
When a man feels ready to graduate, he fills out a seven-page application that includes such questions as “What is the most dangerous trigger which could…lead to a relapse?” and “What are your short-term and long-term goals after graduating, and how do you plan to achieve them?” Step Up ceremonies and graduations are held every two weeks, and it is not uncommon for someone to be held back. About 25 percent of the men graduate, but the number has been increasing. Before the program was restructured in 1999, only 12 percent graduated.
Throughout the entire program the men have to undergo random drug and/or alcohol testing. A bad test gets a man exited immediately. Violence or threats of violence also get a person discharged, as does continuous violation of rules and policies.
This is a simplified description of the program. What is left out and what receives intense emphasis all the way through is a commitment to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which begins with embracing the first of the programs’ 12 steps: to admit you are powerless over drugs and/or alcohol and your life is unmanageable. The men attend AA/NA meetings almost daily, and each man must get a sponsor right away, an experienced member of AA or NA who will help him do the 12 steps to recovery. Before a man can leave Casa Raphael, he has to have studied the first 9 steps of AA/NA and worked the 5th step with his sponsor.
Casa Raphael’s director of operations, Margaret Larson, is the only person on the staff who doesn’t have a history of addiction. She is also the only woman at Casa Raphael, apart from a psychological counselor who comes in three or four days a week. Larson’s eight staff members are all recovering alcoholics and addicts, and all but one came originally to Casa Raphael as a client. All have no doubt that AA and NA are the only ways to recover from addiction, and statistics bear them out. So by the third step of AA/NA, the men have to surrender their will to a higher power — mostly this is God, but for some it can be simply the group itself. The point, as AA’s founder Bill Wilson once wrote, is to admit that one is not God oneself, that there is something higher and more important than oneself. And the driving idea of AA/NA is that it is not enough to put down the drink or drug, but you must change yourself as a human being, and that begins with self-knowledge and self-acceptance, coming to terms with who you are, what you have done, and eventually forgiving yourself. It would seem that a 25 percent graduation rate isn’t very high, but it is far higher than any other program’s, and it is the success rate that AA itself points to. Men who don’t make it through the first time have two more chances to try, and many come back.
I spent two weeks in May at Casa Raphael, talking to the staff and many of the clients, watching the hawkers and work crews, and attending a Step Up ceremony and graduation. What is impressive is that the men are able to come out after nine months to a year not with a minimum-wage job but a job earning at least $11 or $12 an hour. A number continue in college or go into different trades. As Margaret Larson told me, “It’s amazing how many of our program participants never completed even elementary school or high school. And now they’re challenging themselves by getting their high school diplomas and moving on to regional occupation and program-training classes at Palomar College. About 15 clients each year go on to get certificates in refrigeration, heating, air conditioning, computers, electrical, welding, and in other areas. Palomar has two-year programs, and the men get financial aid. I wanted them to have the opportunity not to go back to a work environment of working in McDonald’s or digging ditches or washing dishes. I wanted them to really challenge themselves and give them the opportunity to open doors for better-paying jobs, and without an education and some basic skills, that’s not going to happen. It doesn’t break the cycle of homelessness and criminality. You can’t survive on $6 an hour, not even up here in Vista.”
What else is remarkable at Casa Raphael is the commitment the men make to their recovery from alcohol and narcotics addiction and their understanding that to relapse means returning to the wreckage of their lives with no future except homelessness and jail. I asked Mark Gregory, who as intake coordinator is the first person men see when applying to the program, about the effect of having a staff made up of recovering addicts and alcoholics.
“I think it means everything because you can totally relate. For the staff, we know exactly what they’ve been through. We can really empathize with them. For the client, they know we’re not bullshitting them, that we’ve been there. We know what we’re talking about, and we really care.”
Gregory is 46, muscular, blond with short receding hair, a gunfighter mustache, and a general look of surprise on his oval face. He stoops when he walks, and when he sits he likes to lean forward with his hands folded and his arms on his knees. Around his neck is a silver chain with a religious medallion. He exudes compassion the way a fire gives warmth. I thought of him interviewing guys who had suffered serious addictions, had been homeless and in jail. What kind of history did Gregory have to set up against theirs?
“I’m from Northern California, San Jose,” he told me. “At the age of 12 I started drinking and using drugs. By 12H I was hooked. I never completed high school. I was married in 1972. I was in the military in 1974. Divorced in ’75. I was out of the military in ’77 due to drugs. I came down to San Diego in 1980 and was homeless from ’80 to ’93. I lived under a lot of bridges. In 1983 I was diagnosed with pancreatitis. I couldn’t stop drinking. In ’83 I had my third pancreatic attack; a cyst burst on my pancreas. Emergency operation, it was drained. I got my first contact with AA at that time, but for the next six years I just couldn’t stop drinking. I had 27 pancreatic attacks, three major surgeries. They removed part of my pancreas, my spleen, part of my stomach, large intestine. I would drink until the pain started, would really drink to cover the pain. It got to a point where I could just about have it timed by the time I hit the emergency room, and an hour and a half later I was getting 150 milligrams of Demerol. That would last a while, and then I would come out of the hospital with a bunch of pain pills, and when they were gone I started drinking. And that cycle just went on for six fucking years till I just couldn’t drink anymore. One drink and I’d go right back in the hospital. I finally quit in ’88, but I was really hooked on drugs at that time — methamphetamines. I was taking a lot of pills, a lot of painkillers, and then I started shooting methamphetamines in 1989 and had two heart attacks, and I finally was done in ’93, living on the streets. I just couldn’t walk anymore. The Veterans Outreach Program put me in crisis house for mentals for 30 days, and then for a year and a half I was in a recovery home in south San Diego. In 1995 I came up here to Vista to work for a detox program. Then in ’99 I came to work for Casa Raphael. And I’m still claiming wreckage of the past, physically, from those days. In ’97 I lost my gall bladder, and they had to do just a bunch of work again. If I can get two solid bowel movements a week, I’m blessed. They’re doing a lot of tests right now to see if there’s something they can do for it, but it’s probably something I’ll just have to live with because of all the work that’s been done down there and the lack of organs. My heart’s fine now. Once I stopped drinking and using drugs, my heart healed. Right now my life’s fantastic. I’m married. Four years ago I met a woman, and she was just coming out of jail into this program I worked for, and a year and a half later we were married. And we have a fantastic life, just fantastic.”
Perhaps the oddest thing about Gregory’s story is that it isn’t unique. At least 15 men I talked to had similar stories. The details might differ, but in general it was the same: a life of wreckage from alcohol and drug abuse. However, to someone applying to the program, Gregory is a miracle. He is proof that the program works, as are the other staff members. And it is very hard for a new applicant to tell him, “Oh, you’d just never understand the trouble I’ve been through.” For an addict or alcoholic to talk to Gregory is like having Mark McGwire as your batting coach. He has credibility.
Gregory interviews applicants Mondays and Tuesdays, but state parolees are given priority for bed space, so a parole officer can call any time and immediately get a bed. I asked Gregory what sort of people he saw.
“Some people are just coming out of the bush, homeless, they have nothing. Some people can’t read or write, but they can listen to a video and so can learn the Framework for Recovery program, and we can work with them on that. People come here straight out of prison or from a parole officer, or the courts, or out of jail, or referred from a substance-assessment unit. People off the street have been sent here by the sheriff’s department’s methamphetamine task force. Part of that program is called House Call, and they’ve identified homeless methamphetamine users and they send them to do this program or the option is prison. It’s just a wide range of people. We assessed a gentleman today who’s coming out of a mental crisis house, and we’ll have him here on the 29th. His problem basically was drinking, but he needs to stabilize. So we receive people from all walks of life and from every population — the parole population, the court population, the straight homeless population, the guy-coming-out-of-the-bush population — people straight off the streets, people that have just lost their homes because they lost their jobs; kids 18 to 19 years old coming out of Juvenile Hall. Juvenile probation is sending them here. We really work with the court system; we take fines and can turn them into community service. We meet all the judges’ criteria.”
And what did he hope for these men who came to the program?
“We want them to be able to move on. We don’t want them just to have a chicken-crap job they’re stuck in for the rest of their lives. They have the ability to be the best, most responsible, and most accountable employees in any company. They have their dignity and self-respect back. And they’ve accomplished a lot of possible things while here that they probably thought impossible when they first spoke to me. One of the easier things for them to do is to secure employment. Through the Hawker Program over eight years, people that own their own businesses or work for businesses have taken our guys, and they want more of them. Our people have proven themselves through the Hawker Program. So the least problem we have is getting guys employed. Temporary agencies are always looking for our people, because they know they’re strong, but there are plenty of businesses in North County that are looking for our people. And these companies require no experience whatsoever at all, just dexterity. They train our people from scratch. What most of these companies look for from us are people that will suit up and show up. They’re responsible, they’re productive, they’re honest, they’re accountable, and they can learn. That’s where they start; they just move up the ladder themselves. It’s a pretty complete package. You come in with nothing, and if you graduate, you have a job, bank account, your own place, all the ID you can get your hands on, and you’ve been sober at least nine months. If you want to keep going to college, you’re still enrolled. You have 12 elective credits, basic computer skills, a résumé on disk. It’s a lot of stuff.”
One afternoon I walked down the drive to Casa Base at the corner of Postal Way. On one side of Postal Way are a hundred or so units of low-cost housing and on the other the back of a strip mall. But the area is neat and people are friendly. Gregory had told me this was a big change from how things used to be. “Nine years ago Postal had shootings and stabbings every night, and every night cops had their helicopters flying around looking for someone. Since Casa moved in, it’s like night and day.”
Bob McElroy, director of Alpha Project, had given me a similar description of the street. “There was the highest crime rate in the county on this street. You’d drive up, and people would jump on the lid of your car and say, ‘Hey, you want to buy a bag of dope?’ When the city asked us if we’d buy this place and take it over — and they helped us buy it — then the crime rate went to zero. It dropped off the map.”
Along with offices and classrooms, the small buildings at Casa Base contain three units, each holding 12 men in bunk beds. A group of 12 is admitted every two weeks and assigned to a case manager who sees them through Casa’s Step I. Although the first two weeks constitutes a qualification period, the men start hawking papers right away. Saturday is the only day off; on Sunday they sell papers again. Usually 8 or 9 of the 12 make it to Step II. This afternoon men are sitting around talking or writing in their journals or waiting to see a counselor. Tattoos, earrings, rock-and-roll T-shirts, many of the men resemble what my mother would have called “a rough lot,” but again and again, talking to different men, I’m struck by how gentle and compassionate they are and that the difficulty lies more with my own perception than with the men themselves. At the moment there are 112 men in the entire program, 18 Hispanic, 18 black, and the rest white. Sometimes they have Asians, 5 in the past year.
I sought out J.D. Robinson, program manager in charge of case management, in addition to having the job of overseeing Step I. Originally from Idaho, he has a thick Western accent as if his mouth was full of a chaw of tobacco. Thin, gray-haired, mustached, 58, Robinson entered the program as a client in September 1998, graduated after nine months, and then stayed on. We sat in his office, and he told me his own background with addiction.
“Well, I started drinking at a real early age. There was a lot of alcohol in my household. But I didn’t get involved with drugs that much until my later teens and started fooling around with psychedelic-type stuff, marijuana, things of that nature. Then I discovered heroin. I tried it, and I became a heroin addict probably in my early 20s and been that off and on until I was in my early 50s. And I drank an awful lot during that time too. An awful lot. But I also held a lot of jobs. I was a cable splicer for a number of years. I was a chef for a number of years. I’d work until I got to the point where I needed the drugs too bad, then I’d do other things, criminal acts. And most of the time I was homeless, in the latter years, yes. In the last ten years I never had an apartment. I was living with someone else or living in a shelter or living on the streets. Then one time I went into a detox down in San Diego — Volunteers of America — and they had some brochures about Alpha Project, and I started reading about it. I filled out an application and got accepted to Casa Raphael. And now I mean to stay here. [He laughed.] I’ve never enjoyed a job as much as I’ve enjoyed this one.”
I asked Robinson what the men were like when they first came in.
“Most of those that are court-ordered or their parole officer tells them they need to come here, when they first get here they don’t want to be here. I think one of the biggest difficulties is staying focused on just themselves and what they need to do to change their lives. It’s difficult to say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to have any contact with my parents or my girlfriend or my children for six weeks’ and remain focused on themselves. We tell them when they get here: ‘This is your opportunity to look at the program and see if you like it, and it’s our opportunity to look at you and see if you’re suited for this program.’ Not very often does someone not meet the qualifications, but occasionally there’re some that just absolutely do not want to be here. It’s not what they had in mind when they come into a long-term residential facility. They’re thinking more of getting up at eight or nine o’clock in the morning, versus four o’clock in the morning. It’s just not their cup of tea. For the most part we don’t say, ‘Okay, you don’t meet the qualifications, you gotta leave.’ We let them know this is not appropriate for them, and if they like, we’ll find them a suitable program or they can choose something on their own. Understand, too, that some of these guys are still in the stages of withdrawal or detox. They might have some clean time, but there’s still a lot of detoxing left to be done before their minds clear and they can make any sort of judgment on whether this is what they want to do or do they want to run. That’s where a lot of the doubt and suspicion comes in, when they say, ‘Do I really want to be here? Is this for me?’ Because they don’t know.
“I believe for me personally that when I arrived I didn’t want to be here. I was restrictively motivated to be here for the simple reason that I didn’t want to sleep on the streets anymore and I didn’t want to go back to prison anymore. So I had to do something. I got started in Framework for Recovery, listening to Gordy Graham, and he said, ‘The one thing that I want to encourage you guys to learn is that there is hope for you.’ I thought, ‘Wow.’ He’s got a similar background to mine. He spent 22 years in prison and he changed his life, and the way he did it is by saying, ‘There is hope. There’s a way to do this, and the first thing I gotta do is change me.’ That was my turning point, my little window of opportunity. Somebody telling me there was hope, because all my life I’d been told that I was worthless, hopeless, would never amount to anything. I heard it so much that I believed it, you know? It just happens in different ways with different people. They get a chance to hear some of these guys that have anywhere from a year to 15 years in AA or NA, and they say, ‘Whoa, you’ve been reading my mail. That’s exactly what’s happened in my life.’ And they see the possibility of change. We get people that come to us and say, ‘I’ve had it, man, I’m taking off.’ And some of them, there’s no talking them out of it. Their addiction screams at them so loud, and they’ve never had any way to shut that screaming off except by drugs or alcohol, and that’s what they run to, because they don’t know there’s a way to change. Fortunately, I can’t remember what that scream is like today, but I know that many times, for me, when it happened, that’s all I knew to do — get more drugs or get alcohol.
“But one of the biggest things that takes them out is their girlfriends. They call and say, ‘Oh, honey, I’m so lonely, won’t you come and see me?’ So they pack their bags and they’re off down the street. Or a guy may leave because he doesn’t like the schedule. A lot of times a guy will get about six months in the program and he starts getting the acceptance from the wife or girlfriend or the family and they say, ‘Yeah, you can come back home. You been doing well.’ Well, they bail out, and mostly they end up coming back to us. In a few rare cases they’re able to succeed and change their life. And we’ve had a few that the wreckage of their past catches up with them and they find there’s a warrant for them and they end up going to jail. Some of them get opportunities when they get jobs to get a real good job someplace else, and if they don’t take it then, three months later that job’s going to be full; so they leave for that. There’s numerous reasons for them leaving. But for those with any length of time, the resistance to being here begins to break down. They open up. They become a little bit more willing to make that change. They see there’s opportunities to develop a good strong relationship with their families, and they know that 9 to 12 months of structured environment is nothing compared to a lifetime of misery.
“You look at these guys when they first come in and how they look six weeks later, and that attitude of change is definitely there. Again, you look at where a lot of these guys came from in their lifestyles, it’s something totally different for them to go out and hawk papers and be friendly and say good morning and things like that, because in the environment they came from, those sort of things just didn’t happen. And there’s a certain fear that’s involved — ‘How are these people going to accept me? They’re going to know as soon as they see me that I’m an ex-convict.’ That’s the perception these guys have. And as soon as they find out that the majority of the people may not buy a paper but for the most part are always smiling and waving at these guys, especially after they’ve been out there for a while, then they begin to get some self-confidence. That’s when the attitude starts to change. They’ve got some self-confidence, and they say, ‘I can be a productive member of society. People do care about me.’ I mean, certainly nobody wants to be out there being a paperboy for the rest of their life, and we have no intentions of doing that with them, but it does teach them how to get up and go to work every day.”
The next day I went out in the van with Chris, who is in charge of the hawkers. There are 42 at the moment, most in Step I but also a dozen in Step II. Chris is 34 and entered the program in March 2000 and graduated in March 2001. He described himself as cross-addicted: a blackout drinker at 13 and hooked on methamphetamines at 14.
“The last D.A. wanted to give me 15 years. Needless to say, that was an eye-opener. I knew I had to do something. That was in February 2000, so I walked up the hill and applied to the Casa. The first four months were pretty stressful, and I didn’t think I was going to make it. I had six court dates, but they saw the change in me and gave me 64 days served and three years’ probation. I had two residential burglary charges and ten other felony charges. The judge said it was my last chance and if he saw me again or if I didn’t graduate, I’d be doing 15 years with two strikes. So I got the message. When I came in the program, it was a real high, like the high I experienced when I first tried drugs. But for me the hawking was the most difficult part. For years I never talked to people, I hated people. Now I had to talk. I had to be friendly and cheerful and talk to people buying the papers. I had to get up at four. Everything in my head was telling me to run, but I was tired of being tired, tired of being sick.”
It was midmorning and Chris was driving through Vista seeing how his hawkers were doing. They wear bright blue vests with the words North County Times and matching blue Alpha Project caps. At large intersections there can be four men; at some corners there is only one. Chris stopped at Escondido and El Norte to talk to Dennis, the corner leader in charge of sending guys on breaks. Dennis explained that one of the men, an 18-year-old, wasn’t doing very well. Three girls had visited him earlier, and it would mean problems for him when he returned to Casa Base.
“That young guy was by himself before,” Chris told me, “and got in a little trouble. He needed guidance so we put him with Dennis. He was sleeping under the underpass on his papers! So he got the nickname Sleepy. Then yesterday we found him in McDonald’s with his head on the table sleeping. He was sent here by the courts, but it’s hard to be here for an 18-year-old.”
The rule of having no visitors is easiest to break while a man is hawking papers, Chris told me. “I had to chew out another guy for having visitors this morning while he was hawking papers. His wife and kids came, and they know better. They know better.”
Then Chris pointed to a young man selling at another corner, waving at the cars going by. “See that guy over there? He’s goosed, he’s really goosed. He’s a real hustler. He’s sold 30 papers already. He’s really built that corner up.”
Soon Chris pulled up at the intersection at Ash and Valley Parkway and got out to talk to a rather small golden-haired woman in her 60s who had just given two of the hawkers paper bags, each with a sandwich, a drink, and chips. This was Paula Johnson, known as the hawker mom, who comes around three to five days a week to give “her boys” a bag with a snack. “Several years ago,” she said, “I stopped and bought a paper here from the most disreputable person you’ve ever seen, and I’ve been stopping ever since. I’m retired and I’ve got the time.”
Johnson also attends the Step Up and graduation ceremonies, where she gives the men flowers. She described a time to me two years earlier when she had kept Chris from running. He had recently entered the program and was doing badly.
“I could see he was meaning to do it. I looked in his eyes and saw he was scared stiff. I said, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ That stopped him. I talk to all the boys. Chris opened up; some of them don’t. If I feel one faltering or sad or losing hope, I spend more time with him. I ask what the problem is and keep it up until they tell me, and I try to help them.”
As we talked, there was a steady stream of traffic. Some people bought papers, some others just honked or waved.
“She loves us,” said Chris. “Somehow she saw I was going to run, so she came out of her car yelling at me — this woman I hadn’t even known for two weeks. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Something really clicked in my head. No one had ever cared before, and what reason did she have to? After that, everything changed. I graduated. And addicts of my caliber, we’re not supposed to get clean. We’re supposed to die or go to prison. What helps me now is working with these alcoholics and addicts and focusing on other people’s problems, their needs. It’s hard not getting close to these guys, so when one of them goes back out it hurts. One went out six months ago — first time he stuck a needle in his arm, he was dead. Guys going back on the street or back to prison — you’d think I’d get used to it, but I never do. Of the 14 guys I came in with, I’m the only one who made it. My best friend went out drinking the day after his graduation. I was an emotional wreck and couldn’t do anything for him. I told him, ‘When you’re done, you call me.’ I sat in the parking lot for a half hour in tears. I’ve gotten two calls from him since then, and you know he’s hammered off his ass. For years I covered my emotions with drugs and alcohol, and now the full effect of my emotions I can’t even describe. I did a lot of crying in the first six months. I’m still doing it.”
While Chris dealt with the newspapers, I talked to a young man named Jerry who had been in the program for nearly five weeks and had come down to Casa Raphael from Humboldt County.
“I was sent here by the courts. They told me it was either this or go to prison. So I chose this and it’s been the best decision I’ve made in my life. I’d gotten in trouble, I had drug-related charges, and I came down here because I wouldn’t have gotten clean in Humboldt County. I was athletic in high school, I wrestled and played football, ran cross-country. I even managed to graduate, but after high school my life was drugs. That’s pretty much all I’ve done my whole life. Methamphetamines, crystal. I’ve done all kinds of drugs, but my drug of choice was methamphetamines. I’ve done LSD, mushrooms, smoked weed, drink. I tried heroin but didn’t like it. Done cocaine. My drug of choice was speed. I haven’t honestly held a job for, like, ten years. I started cooking dope and making it and selling it and stealing from people and stealing from stores. It didn’t matter, everything I had I took. I felt that’s how you got things in life. And being around the people I was hanging out with was bad, because every time I got out of jail, I’d go and hang around with them again and they’d all be doing the same thing. So coming down here was probably the best thing I’ve ever done because I don’t know those people now, and I’ve gotten a little clarity of mind. I was in jail for three months, then I came down here and got into the program, and they’ve been supportive of me. I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’m still here. The downs were just the emotional downs. I’m feeling feelings I’ve never felt before. Dealing with life on life’s terms — I’ve never, ever done that.
“My first week here was rough. I was told it was a multimillion-dollar complex and a multimillion-dollar neighborhood, then I got here and it wasn’t what I expected. It was hard getting up at four o’clock in the morning and doing something new that I’d never done before, being in society. That’s something I never did — those type of hours was when I was just going to bed. But I stuck it out. And the counselors and staff are all guys who have been there and done that. It’s not like somebody that’s been to school and read it from a book and says, ‘Well, this is how you should be feeling.’ They’ve all been there and they feel with you. They can tell whether you’re trying or not. You can’t fool a drug addict. You might get over them for a little while, but you’re not getting over on nobody but yourself. So hawking papers has been the most therapeutic thing I’ve done. It makes me interact with the public, and that was something I never did when I was using. The only people I interacted with were other dope fiends, drug users. So it’s been good to have contact with society on a daily basis and realize that society isn’t that bad — Jerry was bad, society wasn’t. You meet all kinds of people. Like today, one lady was in a down mood and I went and talked to her and I just gave her a paper and, you know, that put a smile on her face and that made me feel good. And there’s days I’m down and people will say, ‘Keep your head up. You’re doing good. We know why you’re out here and we’re proud of you.’ I never allowed myself to feel good before, I always felt like a dirty scumbag because I was out there doing things I knew I shouldn’t be doing. And now I’m doing things that I know that I should be doing, and I’m getting correct results on a daily basis, whether it’s from the community at Casa or from the people out here.
“Sometimes you have to go up to people and tell them what you’re doing on this corner. They don’t know what you’re doing — just selling a paper. And I tell them, ‘No, you’re helping 120 drug addicts stay clean and sober, off the streets, out of jails, and learn to lead a clean and sober life, and can we count on your support today?’ And most of the time people are just, ‘Wow, that’s what you’re doing here?’ They’re amazed. And often they’ll either give you 35 cents, or if they say they don’t have the money right now, I’ll just give them a paper and say, ‘Catch me tomorrow or the next day, whatever.’ And people come by with dollars the next day and say, ‘Oh, I owe you for yesterday.’ So it’s great. When I first started, there was only, like, 50 papers being sold on my corner, and I sell about 100 a day. And that’s just from communicating, and that makes me feel good that the public has responded like that. It gives me the courage to go out and do it every day, because there are some days that I don’t want to get up at four o’clock. Oh, man! But when I make that first sale or make that first person smile and he says, ‘Have a good day,’ that makes it all worth getting up at four o’clock in the morning to hawk papers.”
In the 14 weeks of Step II, the men try to apply the tools and principles of Step I, attending workshops, meeting with their counselors, taking classes, doing AA/NA work as they maintain a job either at Casa Raphael or outside. Each man earns a weekly stipend of $20 to $45, depending on the work project.
In charge of Alpha Works is 27-year-old Jason Rodriguez, who first came to Casa Raphael as a client in March 1998, relapsed, then came again in March of 1999.
“I’m in charge of basically everything that has to do with work,” he told me. “I have two work crews down in San Diego — one that works at the Miramar Landfill and another that does jobs for the city — clearing brush, picking up trash, graffiti removal, all sorts of stuff. I also oversee all the hawkers and hawker supervisors. I handle all the scheduling, transportation, donations. Everything that has to do with work, except the work in Step III, and Mark handles that. But I get a lot of calls from people looking for workers, and I’ll pass that on to Mark if it fits the Step III description. These would be businesses looking for people. I have someone right now working for Collins Plumbing in North County. I also have someone working for the Vista Tree Service. Sometimes someone will need someone short-term for a couple of weeks, so I’ll send them a guy, like a Step II guy, and I’ll staff them out at an hourly rate and the money funnels back into the program. I’ve been dealing with Collins’ Plumbing for about two and a half years, and they just love our guys. They get clean and sober workers, and they get people who work hard. And, of course, sometimes it doesn’t work out, so they’ll call me up and I’ll send them somebody else. The guy I have there now has been there about three weeks, and they like him, they want to continue to use him, so when he gets to Step III he’s going to get a full-time job. That’s the whole plan when I staff somebody out. I hope they will like him and that when he hits Step III he’ll continue to work there full-time.”
I asked Rodriguez why he had originally come to Casa Raphael and why it hadn’t worked for him the first time.
“The first time here I was sent by the courts. I was here about eight months, came up through the program, went to Step III, got my own job, ended up relapsing about two weeks before graduation, caught another case and did some jail time and came straight back and started over. I was into heroin and alcohol. I’ve done it all, but heroin was really what took me down. I started using it when I was 17, still in high school. And I started using alcohol when I was about 12, drinking with the guys on the weekends, messing around. That was definitely my first addiction. It came where I was drinking sometimes before school, during lunch I’d leave and drink, and definitely after school. I probably started doing that when I was about 14, drinking on a regular basis every day.
“What went wrong the first time? Casa can only give you so much. I didn’t grasp the concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. That’s why my recovery is based definitely today in my higher power. The first time, I didn’t grasp that. I was here, I was real compliant, I followed the rules, but I just didn’t grasp that whole concept. And one day, I just said, ‘You know what, I just feel like drinking.’ It was that simple. I had a sponsor, but I didn’t use him, didn’t call him. I ended up getting arrested the same day I relapsed. It was a big mess. I had a weekend pass, and I was drinking all day with a guy in a bar in Oceanside. We went back to his hotel room, and he asked if I could cop some heroin, and I said, ‘No problem.’ And he ended up overdosing. I called 911, did that whole thing. I was on probation, so of course I caught a possession case, under the influence, that type of thing, and ended up going back to jail that same night. I really thank God for it happening that way, because when I woke up that next morning, I said to myself, ‘This is what happens when I drink and use, and I can’t do it anymore. I’m an addict and alcoholic.’ And, you know, the light turned on. I had a spiritual awakening, is what I had. I knew I couldn’t drink or use again. So I did five months and begged for another chance. I was looking at five years from a prior burglary conviction that I violated, and I begged to come back to Casa Raphael, because I knew in my heart I wanted to stay sober. And the judge gave me that second chance. I came back, and I’ve been sober ever since. And it amazed me that it all happened in one day, it was so fast. I saw myself transforming back into the alcoholic and addicted mind. Once I took that first drink, I was totally in that lifestyle again. And when I woke up over here in Vista County Jail, I was just going, ‘I can’t believe it. I had a great job, had sobriety.’
“That night I relapsed, I had a good friend of mine in my arms, starting to die on me. And I’d heard a few myths on how you can bring people back, and they didn’t work. So it was to the point where I was thinking whether to leave him and save my own butt, because I knew I’d be going to go to jail. I actually had to sit down and think about it. That’s how sick I was. That’s how I knew I was really back into the disease. Or I could call 911 and get help. And I made the right choice, I called 911 no matter what the consequences would be. His life was in my hands. When I had him in my arms watching him and thinking he was going to die, that’s when I knew it was either life or death for me. Especially dealing in heroin. It’s either life or death or prison. There’s no choice anymore, that’s the way I look at it and how seriously I have to take my sobriety.”
One of the men I talked to in Step II had spent 28 years as a heroin and methadone addict before coming to Casa Raphael, living like a hermit in his family’s avocado groves near Vista. He asked that I wouldn’t use his real name, so I’ll call him Stanley. He’s 48, thin, and five foot six, with very light blue eyes, long blond hair, and a blond beard. His skin is darkly tanned, almost leathery, and lined from the sun.
“When I was living in the avocado groves, I just didn’t talk to too many people. I liked living out in the bushes and stuff. Though I had a house to sleep in, I didn’t really want to sleep in it. We had TVs and tents, and this and that, and I liked living out in the air. My sister and half-brother would come out, but nobody usually stayed there at night except me. Ever since I was 15, I’ve been sleeping out in this little garage spot, or out in a tent or something. I mean, I just liked living like that. I’m kind of like a wild man. I just lived out in the wild all of my life. And I’ve been a hermit, you know? That’s why I worried about coming here. All of these people. My family had an avocado business, so once in a while I worked there. But I never had a regular job. If I wanted money, I’d sell some fruit, anything. I grew a lot of stuff, vegetables, fruits, and that kind of thing and sell a little here and there to make money. Before I got hooked on heroin when I was 19, I grew my own opium. I had two types of opium, and I was growing tons of marijuana. I’m really good at growing things. I didn’t even care for money, even though I had a lot of it. I inherited money, several inheritances, three different inheritances, and I’d just trade for things. If I needed something, I’d trade. And the money I had, I spent on drugs. Incredible, hundreds of thousands of dollars. An insane amount, and that’s just the money I inherited. I had a whole bunch of Coca-Cola stock, twice, and a whole bunch of San Diego Gas and Electric. I sold it all for cocaine and heroin, large sums of money. Yes, I shot it all up. See, my mother died when I was 18, and my dad died when I was about 21. I was living wild when I was 15. I used to sneak out by myself when I was 8 years old with a .22 pistol. I’ve been shooting guns since I was 5. Bows, arrows, guns, I’m very safe with it. I liked the way I lived. I should have been born in the 1800s.”
But a month before Stanley came to Casa Raphael, he was busted for heroin possession. Before that he had had almost no money and constantly worried about how he would buy drugs. He said he didn’t want to steal. He was scared but had no way to stop. He went into a detox close to Casa Raphael, then came to Casa Raphael to get out of the detox. “They came and picked me up. I didn’t want to come here. They picked me up on a Monday, and then they took me to that Step Up meeting thing. I was sitting there in the front looking at the door going, ‘I’m out of here. I can’t handle all of these people.’ I was all agitated. I couldn’t sleep for a month and a half. My legs were aching so bad. They wanted me to sell papers. I go, ‘I can’t sell papers, I’ll get hit by a car. I’m too dinged out from too many years of being strung out.’ So it took me a couple of weeks to start, but I was still really weak and stuff. And after about a month and a half I could sleep a little bit. If it wasn’t for the good people, I would have left, but after a couple of weeks, a month, I thought, man, these people are really nice and good. If they’d been cranky, I would have skedaddled a long time ago. I would have run for the hills. I thought of it almost every day. Because I was just, like, I’ve had enough of this. It’s time to move on. But if it wasn’t for the good people I wouldn’t have stayed. And now I feel excellent, I feel really good. But of course I still think about heroin occasionally. But I don’t want to do it, because I know how bad it will get.
“They’ve given me a lot of tools to fall back on and use in certain situations, most definitely, oh yeah. I mean, many tools. AA says you’ve got to change all of this stuff. I can’t totally change my wild nature. It’s in my genes. At first being here was like an experiment to me. I wondered how long could I stay. And I was scared because for a month and a half I was so sick. And even after that I was like, whoa, man, I don’t know how long I can stay. I mean, I’d hear the birds, the hawks flying over and stuff. I was, like, whoa, I’ve got to get home, you know? See the trees. But I can go hiking there anytime, so it’s no big thing. Sometimes I miss sleeping out by myself somewhere. With all of these people around it’s kind of different. But to a certain degree I’ve adapted to it. I guess you adapt to everything. I’m amazed I’m still here. And I guess I’ll graduate. I mean, I sure haven’t done any drugs since I’ve been here. I’m the kind of person, if I go and do some heroin, I’d call up and say, ‘Hey, I just shot some dope. I’m not coming back. I’m gone.’ I don’t try to fool nobody. I don’t play no games. But I haven’t felt this good since I was probably 18. That’s definitely a miracle.”
For his job in Step II, Stanley worked in Clean Corps.
“It’s janitorial stuff. We clean, vacuum buildings and mop the floors. Tonight we’ve got to do a church. We do lawyers’ offices, dentists’ offices, just all kinds of offices — a big building where they do fabrics, computers, and electronic parts. But after I graduate I’d like to work in a nursery or something. That’s more my style because I’m really good at growing things. I can make the plants grow better, that’s for sure. I’ve just got a gift for it, and it’s something I’ve always liked. And I’ve been around trees and stuff all of my life. And before Vista was big, you know, it was really nice, and peaceful and calm. Now there’s all of this traffic, and phew, boy, too many people. Concrete jungle.”
Of the other men I talked to in Step II, one was Matt, a tall, thin 50-year-old Southern Californian who is a California state–licensed plumbing contractor with over 20 years of experience. At Casa Raphael he is property maintenance supervisor with five to ten other men working under him. Matt had lost his family, friends, jobs, and possessions from alcohol, and when he came to Casa Raphael it was at the end of a four-month binge. “I was pretty scrambled. It was one minute, one day at a time, at best. So coming here was good from where I was going, which had been to some bush somewhere, you know? So it was excellent. In fact, it probably saved my life. I was already having convulsions, any of which I could have died from. Having an addiction is like having an internal disease. You’ve got to fight it every day, and that includes everything. Good nutrition, going to meetings, everything. So it’s a constant battle. I mean, you either get busy living, or you get busy dying. There is no middle ground there. If you’re drinking, you’re getting busy dying. If you’re even complacent, you’re getting busy dying, you know? What you receive at Casa Raphael is the opportunity to change your life. You receive some tools and a place to do it. But it’s up to the individual whether they’re going to change or not. I don’t think you just walk across the threshold and your behavior is suddenly modified. I mean, people are kicked out of here every day because their behavior wasn’t modified, you know?”
Another member of Step II, Jimmy, had begun making methamphetamine at home at 15. Though, at 32, he had held various jobs, most recently as a heavy-equipment operator, his addiction had sent him to jail, and then he had been court-ordered to Casa Raphael. When I talked to him, he had just been named Hawker of the Month.
“I’ve been to six different high schools and never graduated. I want to get involved in business, professional business, research. I like science. You know, manufacturing meth when I was 15 years old, I found myself intrigued by chemistry. Intrigued! Chemistry is just so cool, although it’s a helluva way to get introduced to it. Coming into Casa was, I was all positive. I wasn’t intimidated. I wasn’t made to feel uncomfortable. I filled out an application and talked to Mark. He treated me very respectfully. He made me feel good and showed me what was going on around here. And there’s been a big change. It’s making me a better person. I’m more calm. I’m learning, I’m healing. Some people don’t like it here, but they don’t walk around showing it, because you’re weeded out. You’ll mess up. You’ll be in noncompliance and have a bad attitude. My stepmom used to tell me, ‘If you’re going to do something, you do it right and you don’t carry a lazy man’s load.’ So you only last so long with a bad attitude. And if you don’t change your ways and talk to them, you’re going to do one more thing and start slipping and you’ll be gone. You get involved or you get out. As for me, this program gave me a chance. I have an office where I take care of hawker clothes. I turned it into an office, basically. It was an office when I got there, but it was a shambles. I took out four bags of trash. I put a lock on the door, a lock on the desk. I organized boxes, labeled them, sorted everything out, washed things. So the thing is operational without hassle. You need something, bing, here it is. This program has given me a chance to be me, to see what I can do, show what I can do, see where I can go.”
I asked Gregory about what they did about people leaving or being asked to leave.
“If somebody is going to leave, it’s going to be in Step II, because it’s 14 weeks long, and in that period they’re going to have to learn how to use everything they’ve been given at Casa Base to relieve stress on certain situations they might run into. Things aren’t going to go their way. How are they going to deal with that? At times, they can’t. We try to help them, of course. There is a process here we call ‘staffing people.’ So if a client is having trouble in a certain area, staff will talk to him and usually write him an action plan. And the action plan is to achieve certain objectives concerning whatever problem he’s having in whatever area. After a couple of those, a client would be exited if he was noncompliant with his action plan. But we tend to bend over backwards to do everything we can to keep a client here. If someone leaves and has been court-ordered to Casa Raphael, has a probation officer or parole officer, then it’s our policy to notify them immediately, within 24 hours, with a phone call and a letter, if so needed. That’s our policy. We don’t pursue anybody ourselves. The doors here are open; there’re no locks. They come here freely, and they can leave freely.”
One man whose skills make him especially valuable at Casa Raphael is Jock, a master chef, who runs the kitchen and who graduated from the program while I was visiting. Jock is 51, small and slender, with electric blond hair brushed back over his head and a deeply tanned face, bright blue eyes, and a mustache. He has four earrings and two studs in his left ear and wears two silver chains around his neck. When he walks, he keeps his back ramrod straight and moves with great dignity. We spoke in his tiny office off the kitchen. I asked him if it was difficult when he first came to Casa Raphael.
“No. I know that for some of the guys it is difficult. But before I got here I tried to commit suicide and was in an institution for about a week. I had gone out and bought a quart-size of vodka and had 15 Seconals. I wanted to make sure nobody found me, so I hiked about ten miles out into the country, and I sat down and drank the vodka, ate the pills, and passed out. Some hiker came walking by and found me and had a cell phone, and they life-flighted me out. Then I woke up in the hospital four days later. After I got out of the hospital I stayed sober for two weeks. I knew I was an alcoholic; I didn’t know what to do about it. Then, like by accident, I met a guy downtown selling papers — one of the hawkers — and he explained the program to me, and I came up and put in an application. So when I got here I was more than ready. I really didn’t know what I needed, but I knew I needed something, so I figured, shit, after that escapade out in the hills I’d just go into a program. It wasn’t like I took sleeping pills and drugs and got drunk at home or a place where you’re gonna be found. I was seven to ten miles off any highway, on a little path, but I had no idea anybody would be out there. So I just kind of figured somebody wants me alive — for what, I’m going to try to find out.”
I asked him about his drinking history.
“Well, in high school I drank a little bit, but I mostly smoked pot most of my life, did a lot of cocaine for 20-something years, drank behind it, but I was more into drug use. I used to run coke, and I grew pot too, for 12 years, indoors. I never realized what kind of alcoholic I was until I got busted and they told me I was lucky I didn’t have to go to prison, because I’d never gotten into any trouble before I was 42 years old. They took away smoking pot, doing any kind of drugs at all. If I had one dirty piss test — this was in Santa Barbara County — I would do 5 years in the state pen. So that was a big deterrent for me. Because I didn’t want to go to the pen, I started drinking. In no time I was full-blown, drinking every day by noon. Didn’t take long before I was drinking a handlebar of vodka a day, plus a pint to another quart — morning, noon, and night. During all that time I worked as a chef — the Sheraton, different, real nice gourmet restaurants in Newport Beach, a country club. I’ve been cooking all my life. I’ve been actually a chef for 19 years and cooking over 30. The job loss and all that kind of bad end of the story started happening when I was 42. I started losing jobs, losing friends, drinking became the most important thing in my life. I just lived to drink. I didn’t need a reason. I drank if I was mad. I drank when I was happy, drank when I was sad. I just drank because I liked to drink. I liked the effect it gave me. And drinking is notorious at restaurants. Management’s drinking and giving you drinks. Most people in the back are drinking or using, smoking pot. I never got behind the crystal, never used speed or nothing, didn’t like it, I’m already hyper enough. But all that goes on in the restaurants, especially here in San Diego, more than up there in, like, Orange County and L.A. Lot of drug use throughout the kitchen, lot of pot smoking, but mostly drinking.”
As head of the kitchen at Casa Raphael, Jock comes in every morning at seven. He does all the ordering, arranges the menus, and has seven men working under him.
“I do private parties too. I’m having one tomorrow, just for a small party of 15, a little catering we do every once in a while, like for the school board, trying to get it out there in the public. We’ll make some flyers and put them in the stores for small catering. In the kitchen, I oversee everything that goes on. I basically cook all the soups, sauces, main parts of the meal. My helpers help me cut the salads, lettuce, do prep work and things, but I cook every day for the guys. I’m good at what I do. I’ve had write-ups in different papers on my work, on soups and sauces and things. I try to make everything really, really good for everybody, and I eat the same food as everybody else. It’s about 110 to 130 dinners a day, depending on how many people they have. I’ve lowered their food bill quite a bit. They used to do $2200 to $2300 a week. I had it down to $1500 for a while, serving way better food.”
I asked Jock how Casa Raphael had helped him.
“They taught me about what triggers me to drink and how to turn that around. I know how to face those things that make me want to drink, and because of the knowledge I’ve gotten, all those desires have basically dissipated. I don’t have any urges to drink anymore. I used to think alcohol brought me out of myself, but now I think it put me further back in a shell, because I’m more myself nowadays than I ever was before. I don’t fight any of the feelings I have, they just happen no matter if I’m crying or sad or whatever the feeling may be. I just go with what’s going on with my life and don’t try to run from it, and that’s what really changed the most, that and God in my life. Everybody believes in their higher power and I believe in Jesus Christ, and you’ve got to have faith in that belief, and by having faith I mean I know God wants me to be happy; He doesn’t want me to be sad. I don’t have a punishing God. He wants me to have all the good things in my life that I want, and not necessarily material things, but just the peace of mind that I have today.”
At Casa Raphael great emphasis is placed on self-analysis, working with the men to help them discover who they are and why they do what they do. This starts in their first week with journaling. I asked Robinson what effect he thought journaling had on the men.
“It’s huge. These guys have spent years closed within themselves, never telling anybody how they felt or what was going on in their head. Journaling gives them the chance to share and explore these new feelings they don’t know how to deal with. I still have trouble dealing with feelings today, four years clean. And if I don’t write about it and think about it and go talk to my sponsor and say, ‘This is what I was feeling the other night,’ it will hurt me. Once the guys get used to journaling, they start getting in touch with how they feel about different things. When they start writing about what’s going on in their heart, they’re starting to get in touch with who they are as human beings. It gives them the opportunity to understand that anger is okay too. Anger is a healthy feeling. It’s just how you go about it. If you express it on paper — that’s fine. If you react to that anger and lash out, that’s bad. And, fortunately, in the little over three years at Casa Base, as far as I know, we’ve only had two fistfights. And that’s an awful lot of people.”
The half-dozen journals that I read dealt with the frustrations and rewards of the day, expressions of hope and good intentions, and, generally, surprise that they were enjoying themselves as much as they were. One man wrote,
“Today I woke up still pretty tired. For some reason I always think it won’t be a very good day working at hawking, then it ends up being fine, especially after I get going. Anyhow, today was something special. This girl came by who also came by on the first day that I was there. Well, I had tried to sell her a paper and she told me to shut the hell up. So the last four days I don’t even acknowledge her when she drives by. Well, today she stopped and bought a paper for a dollar even though I was not paying attention to her. She yelled at me, and I ran up to her and sold her one. Made my day.”
The 12 steps of AA and NA insist on the need of the recovering alcoholic and addict to look at who he is, take responsibility for the trouble he caused in the past, and to try to change himself for the better. But also at Casa Raphael there are regular group meetings where the men are asked to write out and/or discuss definitions of certain words — spirituality, personality, change, responsibility, resentment, weakness, strength, dozens of words. The effect of defining an abstraction and then relating it to oneself and how one lives allows the men to take different perspectives of themselves and also to see themselves more clearly in relation to others and to the world.
I attended several of these meetings with Gregory. The first was a Step III resident staff team meeting with five men, three white, two black, between the ages of 30 and 50. Gregory was thoughtful and spoke slowly, at times almost as if he were in pain. This group had just been formed, and Gregory talked about the men’s role.
“You are like the cream of the cream,” he began. “Not everyone can take a commitment to Step III. You are between the staff and the residents. We use you as the resident staff to know what’s going on. We see you as the elite, though some of the residents will see you as chickenshit, as rats. But we need you. The whole deal is communication, sharing the information about what happens around here. Cover your ass. Don’t assume crap. Because they’ll work you, they’ll give all sorts of excuses.”
The men asked questions about what needed to be done. There were general chores like cleanup and store runs. Resident staff, Gregory said, would do the weekend inspection, then clean again on Monday.
“It’s not punishment. It’s just that time of year when we clean everything up. We should probably do it every quarter. When Corporate came through last week, the rooms were just a mess. It’s totally unacceptable. It’s not about germs. You got to take pride in stuff.”
After spring-cleaning was discussed, Gregory went on to start what he called the “definition exercises.”
“Every exercise that you do points you forward toward your recovery. In Step III there are lots of distractions from the world, and the recovery process doesn’t become as important to us anymore. So to define these words is to again relate them to recovery and the program. You’ll have a week to do it. I learn from you. I learn nothing from me. I learn from other people. So every time I do this with you guys I learn something new. The recovery process is nothing but change, never-ending change. But the biggest change, where does it occur?”
A tattooed bodybuilder with scars from fistfights on his face asked mildly, “Within yourself?”
“Right,” said Gregory. “Reflect on what has changed in your lives. Everybody here understands what the recovery process is, right? The recovery process here at Casa is the steps of AA and NA. It’s the only successful recovery process in the world.”
The second meeting was a Step III team meeting — Gregory and 13 guys in a room at Casa Base. The men had been working all day and were tired, sweaty, and dirty. Still, they were cheerful. Gregory spoke about the spring-cleaning over the weekend. There would be no passes to leave Casa. The men would do their regular jobs on Saturday and then come back. They could leave to go to AA/NA meetings, but that was all.
“If you need stuff from the store,” said Gregory, “go Friday. It’s not punishment. We do this every year. If you finish early, go help someone else.”
At last Gregory asked, “How did you find this exercise?”
Most said they found it helpful; one hadn’t liked it, three men hadn’t done it. The men went around the circle defining their words — surrender, powerlessness, acceptance. Some definitions were rudimentary, some very articulate. Some men clearly wanted to move their lives forward positively; some were confused about how that might happen; some still kept blaming others or the world for what had happened to them.
“The big problem is surrendering the will and not taking it back,” said one man. “When I get angry over something that I can’t do anything about, then I’m taking it back. I can’t become empowered until I give up that power.”
“When I’m doing all right,” said another man, “I’m happy, things are going okay, then I’ve turned my will over; when I’m tense, things start going bad, I get irritated, then I’m taking my will back.”
Gregory was a good teacher; he carefully kept himself equal to the group while not relinquishing authority. Everyone seemed to listen very hard.
“Change will occur,” said Gregory. “You cannot work the steps without change occurring. It’s absolutely impossible. What else did you get out of this exercise?”
“To be true to myself,” said one man. “It forced me to reflect. I know if things get out of control, I’ll say, ‘Fuck it.’ I’ll start using, I won’t care if I live or die. But that’s taking my will back. If I don’t pick up, I’ll get through it.”
One young man described how his mother had died in a car wreck while he was here. An older man talked about how his daughter had died after two years in a coma — both were able to deal with it because they were at Casa Raphael.
“I just let it go out of my hands if I can’t deal with it,” said the older man. “I don’t drink over it.”
“When you leave,” said Gregory, “what are you going to take with you to stay clean? Just because you leave, it’s not over. You can call, you can come over, you can come to my house. Casa will always be here for you. If you get out there and your head starts playing games with you, come back here, call, you’re never alone.”
The biggest event at Casa Raphael are the Step Up and graduation ceremonies held every other Monday evening at a rather seedy Veterans Hall in Vista. The emotions swing between what one might find at church and a pro basketball game. More than half a dozen of the staff described it to me as their payday — the day that makes up for the difficulties of all the rest. Many former graduates show up to cheer the men on. And men’s families are there, especially the families of the graduates. Right in front of the stage are seated the 12 new men who have just entered Casa Base, looking somewhat confused, defiant, frightened, eager, and trying to be hopeful.
On this evening Martin Luther King III was there with a camera crew, which had been filming Alpha Project activities since dawn, beginning with the demolition of a building. King was making a short film for his 13-part series of documentaries focusing on the lives of ordinary people, Wisdom of Dreams, on the Wisdom Cable Network. It was very hot, and fans had to be brought down from Casa Base. The film crew had a polite officiousness, bordering on the pushy, as they adjusted their lights and poked their cameras into people’s faces like a dentist preparing for a root canal.
The evening began with Bob McElroy, head of Alpha Project, introducing Martin Luther King III. McElroy is a large, dark-haired, handsome man who looks part football player and part Hollywood actor of the John Wayne variety. He spoke of King’s series of documentaries and his decision to come to San Diego. “They chose this program because of your efforts, because of your triumphs and struggles and courage. That every day when you want to run, you stay one more day. And word’s getting out that this is where dreams are made and where miracles happen.”
King is probably about 50, solidly built with a round face, short hair, and a neatly trimmed beard. He spoke very briefly. “In our lives we are the ones who must choose. No one can make us do anything. But if we choose, then we can create a change and fulfill a dream within our lives. This ceremony is about those of you this night who are graduating, maybe in a real sense starting anew.” Men cheered. The lights for the filming made the room even hotter.
McElroy got up again. He is a charismatic speaker with a deep voice and a Western accent with a burr in it. As he speaks, men from the audience cheer and call out — “You tell ’em, Bob” and “That’s right, Bob.” He is clearly someone the men look up to. He described spending the day with King and had been asked if he ever got burned out doing what he did and why he kept coming back.
“Sometimes I might think of picking up a fishing rod, roll me a big hooter, or grab me a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and say, ‘Ef it.’ But what keeps me coming back is the fact that I get to hang out with you, that I get to come out and see people who have the courage not to quit, those of you who stand up there every day, get up at four o’clock, get on that van — you don’t want to go out there, especially your first time out, you don’t want to sling that paper, nobody wants to be a paperboy. But most of you, weeks into the program, see that people out there in the community, little kids waving at you, giving you the thumbs-up, encourage you to keep going. You guys are kicking ass. You earned everything here, folks. You men up here tonight, those of you who have been up here as graduates and have a concern to come back and welcome new graduates into the brotherhood, the alumni, you’re what it’s all about.”
The Step Up ceremonies award and recognize the men moving from Step I to II and from Step II to III. The men were brought up on the stage and introduced by their supervisors or case managers. What they had to do in the step was carefully described. Something was said about each, and they received diplomas. And the men spoke: reading portions of their step exams. For instance, at the end of Step I, the men are asked to write six pages about what their lives were like before they came to Casa Raphael, what they learned from hawking, what they learned in the Framework for Recovery workshop, and how they are using what they learned in their lives today, how do they know they are totally powerless over alcohol or other drugs, how do they show they have surrendered their will, why they feel they are ready for the challenges of Step II, and, finally, what message would they like to leave behind for future residents of Step I.
The men were extremely earnest, somewhat embarrassed, quite a few wept and dashed away tears with the backs of their hands. Their writing was very simple, full of slogans and stock phrases, but seemed sincere. There was a lot of laughter and good humor. Still, only nine men moved on to Step II, four moved to Step III, and there were only three graduates. Some who had come into the program with these men had been held back, but others had dropped out.
A young man named John, passing on to Step II, introduced himself as an addict and read, “Before I came to Casa Raphael, my life was unmanageable no matter what I did to try to make myself happy, and the fact of the matter was that nobody else’s life didn’t mean nothing to me. I robbed, I stole, and I didn’t care what anybody thought about it, and I sure didn’t care how they felt about it. I was just living for the day, until one day I scared myself and realized there was something definitely wrong with me, and then I finally got busted again. To me it was a prayer answered. Even though I didn’t want to go back to prison, I felt it was the only thing I could do to be safe from myself and for others. And then came these programs and I thought, Wow, there is something else to help me aim my life, to better myself, and that’s how I found Casa Raphael.”
Rich, the Step II case manager, introduced the four men going on to Step III. “I do a complete sheet, tracking all the things these guys have to do in 14 weeks, and believe me, each and every one of them have done an excellent job, otherwise they wouldn’t be standing up here tonight. Just to give you an example of some of the hard work they’ve put in: Jason had 81 AA or NA meetings, 21 sponsor contacts, 583 hours’ work, 42 journals, 28 team and resident meetings, 12 hours in the computer lab. He did anger management and completed steps four, five, and six. Good job, Jason.” Rich went on to say that in the application to Step III, the men had to answer seven questions, and the fourth question was to review their journals, pick out the most significant, and write about how they had changed in Step II, using the journals as a guide to what had happened to them. Tonight they were going to read their answers to this question.
A tall black man who worked in security began. “My name is Kirk, and I’m recovering from multiple addictions. While reviewing my journals I recognize the fact that I was and am internalizing the steps of AA and NA. I made them a living part of my daily life.”
What was striking, apart from the very idea of ruined lives being recovered, was how increasingly articulate the men became as they moved through the program and how much the program focused on language — the constant defining of abstractions, trying to become increasingly precise in describing behavior and the reasons for that behavior. And the men were becoming calmer in relation to their addictions. They might weep in gratitude over what they had received and the change in their lives, but they no longer felt overwhelmed by the world and their addictions. This too had come through language. Its increasingly precise usage had given them a major tool in thinking more clearly, which helped them define themselves in relation to the world and to begin to discover who they were. As someone who has taught creative writing workshops for nearly 40 years, I was impressed by how what happens in a workshop was similar to what the men were doing — that you don’t really know something until you can articulate it, and the more precisely you are able to articulate it, the better you are able to know and understand it.
The most moving part of the program is the graduation ceremony itself. The work of the three graduates was described and praised by their case managers. One was Jock, the master chef to whom I had spoken before. Another was Joel, a thin Georgia native in his 50s who had come to Casa Raphael after serving six years in prison on a manslaughter conviction. The third was Mickey, handsome, blond, in his late 20s, whose entire family had come to watch him graduate.
Mickey could barely speak because of his emotion. “You know, this has not been easy, but when I went to the third step, I said that I was going to graduate this program, and I did it!” There were cheers from the audience as Mickey wiped his eyes. “This is the first thing in my life I’ve ever accomplished, and it feels really good. I have my two kids here, and they never knew that their daddy was a drug addict until right now, but I’m telling you guys I love you from the bottom of my heart. And I’m changing my life, you guys.” And again he broke down as men applauded him.
Joel, who was staying on at Casa as an assistant case manager, was almost as emotional. Speaking in a heavy Georgia accent, he said, “I’m so fortunate now that there ain’t no way I’m gonna not be able to cry, so y’all get ready for it. My momma and my sister and my brother came all the way from Georgia just for this. This is the only thing my mother has ever witnessed me accomplish in my life.” He paused to wipe his eyes, and a man from the audience shouted, “We love you, Joel!” Then Joel resumed with tears running down his cheeks. “So Casa gave me that to give to my momma. What a great gift that is to give somebody.”
Then Jock spoke. “I’m Jock and I’m an alcoholic. And I’m a very grateful alcoholic today. You know, before I came here I was, like, desperate, I was lonely, I was at the end of my life. I had nothing going on. I was just a low-bottom drunk. I was living in the bushes. I couldn’t keep a job for over a month, sometimes I couldn’t keep a job over a day. The last month before I came into the program, I think I had, like, seven jobs. I needed help, and I didn’t really know where to turn.” He went on to describe finding Casa Raphael and his first weeks in the program. “I couldn’t think right, I could barely make it past a sentence, but by the end of the month, the fog started to lift, and as the fog lifted and I was out hawking newspapers, I started getting into talking with the community and I realized I wanted to do things for the community. And because of that today, next week I’ll have a year sober. Because of my hard work and wanting to do this so bad, I’m actually hired on as kitchen manager and supervisor and paid staff member. I’m so proud of that that it’s unbelievable.”
Not only were the graduates weeping, but many of the men in the audience were weeping as well, rough-looking guys who looked as if they were on their way to a Hell’s Angels’ convention.
The last part of the evening consisted of welcoming the 12 new men into the community. They were brought up on the stage and introduced. Then they formed a small circle, while everyone else in the room formed a huge circle with their arms over each other’s shoulders. The three graduates again talked about their own experiences and described to the new men what they could look forward to and the tools they needed to deal with the things that might happen. The new men looked enthusiastic and scared. It seemed they were obviously doing the math. Nine men had stepped up from Step I, four men from Step II, and three graduates. Whatever the next months held in store, it was clear that quite a few of their number weren’t going to make it. On the other hand, the three graduates seemed so happy, hopeful, and eager for the future that it would be impossible not to want what they had.
“You come into the program when you really want a change in your life,” Margaret Larson had told me. “If you’re not ready to accept your downfalls, what your addictions are, and own up to them and let yourself be aware that it’s for yourself that you’re making these changes — not because you’re court-ordered here — but it has to be for yourself from within. It doesn’t work for people who just come in here because they were ordered here. They have to have that willingness and that desire to change. Now I’m off on my bandwagon, I’m sorry.” She laughed and then continued. “But when you hear the end result, it’s just amazing the changes they see within themselves by being out in the public and actually having some respond back to them with a wave or a hello. And to me that little tiny wave is so rewarding, to hear them acknowledge that, ‘Oh, my gosh, I feel like a human being again.’ That’s the feeling that helps them get through.”