A Day at a Time In Recovery

The atmosphere is beginning to break down at the House of Joseph. At this small, church-based, men's recovery home on the outskirts of Marysville, Calif., the guys are losing patience with each other. They're squabbling about details, about housework and money, about unfairness in their responsibilities.

Life at the House of Joseph has always gone through cycles. The challenge lies in keeping things steady, and that's why Aquil Hafiyz, the director, has decided to keep everyone home tonight instead of attending church. The time has come to gather everyone in Freedom Hall and lay down a bit of the law, affirm some of the basic rules.

Aquil has spent the afternoon roaming the grounds, supervising the landscaping that's going on in the front and side yards. He's younger than a lot of the guys, but still he resembles an older man.

These past couple of months, the men have been keeping it positive, working well together. There's been a solid group running the car washes, heading out diligently after breakfast each day with a shopping cart loaded with buckets and soap and rags, hawking washes for donations through the warm afternoon. The men – about a dozen total, ranging from their mid-20s to late middle age – already have tilled up the yard's packed-dirt turf and seeded a new lawn, and today they planted a sapling, installed some decorative cinderblocks and gathered up the clutter in the side yard.

The house is a former rest home, with an extra-wide hallway and side entryway, and a wheelchair ramp leading up to the front deck. It shows the effects of age and neglect, and so it blends into the landscape of Olivehurst, a chronically downtrodden suburb on the south edge of Marysville. But on this day, the place is a little tidier, and the progress has infused the air with a sense of pride and boosted the cooperative spirit.

But those dark spots of disunity are lingering, and they'll only fester if left unaddressed. So, Aquil sends word around, and soon everyone is filtering into the place they call Freedom Hall, a former living room soaked in musty, old-house scent and doused in green-tinted light from aging skylights.

The guys slide into the two old church pews that line a table, open their Bibles to Ephesians and begin reading in turns, like they normally do. And, as he often does, Aquil soon interjects with a comment, adding perspective to the verses. But this time, he doesn't stop talking for about a half-hour.

"The reason we're having this meeting tonight is because we've got to get certain things back on track," he begins, in the snappy, down-beat rhythm that he always applies to weighty matters. "We're a family in this house. We are men, and we should treat one another like men! This is our community, and everybody has to learn how to help each other out – we're in too-close quarters with each other!"

He brings up incidents from days before, brings up Bible characters and Bible verses, his rhythm steady and lively, like that of an impassioned pulpit orator. Soon, it seems he's produced the desired effect, and he begins to wind down. The guys have begun responding, joking and laughing together, and Craig Anderson, a clean-cut, middle-aged man who arrived depressed and homeless from Sacramento two months ago, stands and offers an apology for losing his cool the previous day. There's hugging, and the guys rib each other a little and laugh some more. At least for now, Aquil has held things together.

He lingers outside afterward, in the evening sun along the side walkway. He's keeping track of the comings and goings; several guys are walking around the corner and down the street, heading for their drug and alcohol recovery group meetings. Technically, this is a breach of house rules. The program requires a "blackout" period for a resident's first 30 days, a time of confinement to the house and backyard, a time for thinking things over – for tilling the soil, as Aquil puts it, and the planting of a new seed.

There should be veteran residents or staff members escorting the guys when they leave the grounds, but Aquil is the house's only staff member, and he can only enforce so many rules. So, he overlooks many of them, all the while making sure the guys know that the rules still exist and why they exist: It's the surroundings, the neighborhood. It's because the House of Joseph sits in the middle of Olivehurst, just off the main strip. It's because most of the guys come from around here, a place that's saturated with the very things they're trying to push away.

For a while now, the community of Olivehurst has begun serving as a contrast for an upper-middle-class invasion showing up on the fringe of town. A few blocks south, vast tracts are being graded for new houses. A brand-new apartment complex sits separated from the aging, single-story homes across the street by a 10-foot wall, awaiting its share of Sacramento workers who will commute 90 minutes each day for the lower cost of living.

But here, at Olivehurst and Sixth avenues, neighborhood denizens forever crisscross town – some on foot, some on rickety bicycles and some in run-down jalopies looking as aged and faded as the buildings. People are conducting drug deals, discreet transactions that aren't too hard to spot from the front yard of the House of Joseph. Here in the middle of town, storefronts still sit empty and boarded, although some say Olivehurst Avenue is looking up these days.

It's a place that Nick Romano has haunted for years, alternately nursing and fighting a heroin addiction that has gripped him for most of his adult life. Nick is in his early 50s, but his soft, somewhat hesitant demeanor makes him seem younger. He's not small, at about 5 feet 10 inches, but his build is slight, and his gaze has a fragile quality – youthful and weathered at the same time.

He reminds Aquil about his medication, but Aquil demurs and tells him to attend his recovery meeting first; he can take it afterward. Aquil has been holding the medication, an addiction-treating pill, since Nick overdosed a week ago, having finally downed too many after suffering through the first few days of heroin withdrawal. It was an incident that stuck in Aquil's mind, one he brought up again during this evening's lecture. It's always unsettling when a resident suffers a setback, but there was something else that morning, a comment that was made, and it struck a nerve in Aquil.

It was mid-morning, well after Bible study, after the residents had done their morning chores. The usual handful of guys had stolen around the corner for a cigarette, breaking the house rule against tobacco, another rule that escapes enforcement these days. Nick had shuffled along with them, in his flip-flops and cutoff shorts. As he walked, rolling a cigarette, his movements began to slow. And, before long, he'd stopped moving altogether. His eyes had widened, and his gaze had receded into a hollow distance when fellow residents Craig and Steve caught him, propped him up and called his name a few times. They waited a minute or two and then stood him up, one on each arm, and began a slow, halting retreat back to the House of Joseph.

They lowered him into a wheeled desk chair and then rolled him into the nearest bedroom and eased him onto a bottom bunk. An ambulance arrived a few minutes later, and one of the paramedics, as he began writing on his clipboard, commented offhand: "Oh, yeah, we know Nick. We've been chasing him around town for the past few years!"

It rubbed Aquil like sandpaper, fired his motivation. Nick had shown up at the house a number of times in the past several years, staying for as long as a few days and as short as a few hours. This time, he'd been off heroin for five days – no small feat. But he'd come farther before, only to fail. All of this, taken together, caused Aquil to punch the air in front of him as he waited in the hallway, watching the medics work. "We are gonna beat this thing!" he exclaimed stubbornly, trying to keep his voice low.

Now, a week after the incident, Nick's gaze has become alert, showing more of his adult, weathered side. He's approaching the two-week mark, and he's thinking about the future. He talks with energy about enrolling at Yuba College, about learning a trade and earning a certificate, as other residents have done before. The guys keep up-to-date on Nick's progress, helping him count the days. The recovery program involves selecting a personal mentor, and Nick has told Craig that he's considering asking him the favor. The only trouble, he says, is that Craig has no history with drug addiction. Craig is a strong presence, a man with a certain resolve and motivation, but he came to the house for different reasons, so, realistically, he can't relate to Nick's journey.

Craig is 58 years old. His troubles started a year and eight months ago, when his wife passed away and he began heading emotionally downhill, the pieces of his life soon crumbling away. He was sleeping on the sidewalk outside a Sacramento homeless shelter last spring when a storm erupted overhead. After pondering his despair for a time, he offered up a desperate prayer, he says – and looked skyward to see a lone cloud drifting north, against the wind. That, Craig says, was an unmistakable sign from the Lord, saying, "Head north." And it wasn't long afterward that Craig encountered Aquil visiting the shelter, spreading word about the House of Joseph, a place where he could find the support he needed to start fresh, 45 minutes north up the highway.

This afternoon before the meeting, Craig lingered in the front yard after the others had gone in, mothering the new lawn, which is beginning to sprout around the large shade tree fronting the house. He seems to feed on the high spirits as much as he contributes to them, and he places high hopes on the House of Joseph. That's why he takes it hard when people start bickering over details. He winds up snapping at someone, like he did the previous day.

But now, after Aquil's speech, things seem better again.

The Apostle Michael Sterling lives about an hour away, in South Sacramento, so he doesn't show up at the house every day. When he does, he's the most imposing figure on the premises, a towering, bald, barrel-chested man constantly punctuating his phrases with some variation of "Hallelujah, praise God, name of Jesus!"

As a younger man, Sterling sold drugs in his native Los Angeles, and he eventually went to prison for three-and-a-half years. When he got out, he still had plenty of "juice" in his neighborhood – a strong street reputation, plenty of friends willing to set him up in business again. But Sterling, who was raised a Baptist, found Jesus again, and it was something much more profound, he says, than the "prison Jesus" that often grips inmates. He began acting on his new conviction, leading prisoners in prayer and Bible study.

"I was like Joseph, literally," he says, referring to the namesake of his two recovery homes, the one in Olivehurst and its counterpart in San Bernardino. (Joseph is the Bible figure who, in the book of Genesis, instills strength and hope in his fellow prisoners in Egypt's dungeons, later to become an elevated government figure.) Sterling has since become a Pentecostal minister, and he now serves as executive director of Kingdom of God Apostolic & Prophetic Ministries International, which runs churches and recovery homes around California and has operations in Nigeria, Kenya and India.

When he speaks of his hopes for the House of Joseph, Sterling describes the early years, when there was money for several staff members; when house rules were more rigid; and when the recovery rate among his residents, he estimates, was around 80 percent. For the past couple of years, it's been more like 40 percent, he says.

Sterling talks of pursuing funding through the federal Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program, but that requires resources as well, he says – namely, a person who can guide him and his staff through the process. He suspects funding may be impossible if the house doesn't meet certain living conditions, and there's a long list of needed improvements, but he estimates the cost at around $10,000. "I'd almost be better off going through the private sector," he says.

If Sterling had all he wanted, there would be a 6-foot wrought-iron fence surrounding the yard, with an electronic lock on the gate. There would be a chart on the wall, listing all the residents and their whereabouts throughout the day. There would be enough staff to keep the system running smoothly around the clock, including a resident nurse. As the house director, Aquil shouldn't have to regulate people's medication, Sterling says. He shouldn't have to cook dinner, which he sometimes does, and he shouldn't have to keep track of people's whereabouts throughout the day.

It's because of these limitations that Sterling accepts Aquil's lenient style, admitting it's probably the best approach for the time being. When Sterling visits every few days, he likes to bust Aquil's chops, point out things that need doing and put a little pressure on his employee. He chuckles about that. "Aquil can only do so much," he concedes.

A couple of weeks have gone by, and Craig's spirits are low, although he won't admit it. After spending the day washing cars, he's in the kitchen, browning beef and cooking noodles in pots that are too small for a dozen people. Craig is working alone, with an oven that looks like it's falling apart and pots that he's scraping with a spoon because someone didn't clean them very well.

Most of the positive atmosphere has disappeared. Nick has completely fallen off again; he left the house without telling anyone. The residents say he's shown up to visit since then, with a beer in hand and enough pills to stay high for some time. They say he's working an odd job somewhere in the neighborhood, but no one is quite sure of his whereabouts.

Once he left, other guys copped attitudes and stomped out, going back to their old ways – some temporarily and some permanently. Aquil says a few wanted to make a point, saying, "Hey, if he can come and go as he pleases, so can I!" They're snubbing the house rules, Aquil says, and not showing the respect they showed before.

It's all caused Aquil to change his perspective a bit, rethink his unconventional approach. His expectations may have lowered slightly, but he's still a long way from giving up on his philosophy.

A few days later, Craig is manning the car wash again, waiting for customers in the parking lot of a pizza parlor, across the river in Yuba City. It's nearing 5 o'clock, and he and Doug Galyardt are expecting someone to pick them up soon, to gather the buckets and towels and head home after another long day. Doug and Craig have come to share a trait, both refusing to let the house's atmosphere sour them.

Doug is a soft-spoken, weathered-looking man of 39 who came to the House of Joseph after serving jail time for domestic violence. It was a weakness for drugs and alcohol, he says, that got him to that point. And now that he's lost much of his life – like Craig, but for a whole different set of reasons – he's determined to leave bad influences behind, and he won't let any household squabbles sway him.

"I've got to give the Lord a chance," he says. "Those other guys, they're not worrying about the important things. They're worrying about the little dogs nipping at their ankles, and not thinking about the big dog about to bite their heads off."

The two continue waiting, reclining in their chairs, surrounded by the noisy rasp of late-afternoon traffic. A former resident pulls up, looking for Aquil, saying he has a personal score to settle. Doug and Craig answer politely, and the man drives off. Before long, a young man drives up in a dented sedan and calls out, "How much for a wash?"

"Whatever you want to donate," Doug replies, bending his thick moustache with a smile. The man smiles back and pulls up next to the island, and Doug and Craig, with their steady, understated, diligent energy, get to work on the final wash of the day.

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