A popular belief about drug addiction and alcoholism is that those who end up completely destroyed – living on the street, committing an amalgam of crimes to pay for their habits – are undereducated, ignorant and unaccomplished. Upon spending one day speaking to the residents of The Healing Place, a homeless shelter in the West End that has a drug and alcohol recovery program with a 65 percent success rate, this presumption no longer holds water.
A perfect example of someone of good standing and fortune being lost in the abyss of addiction is Clyde Harper, a black man of indeterminate age. The wonderment in his eyes makes it hard to say whether or not he’s eligible for social security. Today, his freckled cheeks are slightly obscured by thin-rimmed spectacles and his eyes are shadowed by a scally cap. An alumnus of the program, Clyde is currently in charge of introducing the center’s social model for recovery to other facilities, and spearheading new Healing Place facilities across the country.
Clyde went to college in his hometown of Detroit, where one of his majors was theater arts. His roommate was Tom Sizemore, a character actor and thief of many a scene in cult classics such as “Heat” and “Bringing Out the Dead.” Clyde went on to work for the Council for the Arts where he was an appointee under Mayor Coleman Young, helping to organize Nelson Mandela’s visit to Tiger Stadium during his world tour after he was released from prison in 1989.
This former dope fiend (“I snorted my heroin to avoid track marks and no one ever knew because we addicts are such great actors.”) not only got to meet Martin Luther King but also had a close relationship with Rosa Parks.
His act never failed him though, and he continued to prosper as an organizer for both social issues and the arts. It was not the kind of “bottom” one generally associates with drug addicts that caused Clyde to seek help. He was not living under a bridge and begging for money, hoping to put enough change together at the end of the day so he could score.
It was an emotional and spiritual bottom he never dreamed he’d experience. “I woke up in this suburb of Detroit called Waterford and I listened to this 12-year-old cuss his mother and father out because they wouldn’t share their dope with him,” says Clyde.
Telling the story from his fluorescent-lit first floor office in The Healing Place’s men’s facility on West Market, Clyde throws up his arms, saying, “It was at that point I knew my life was chaos. I no longer had control.”
To the east of Clyde’s office is the mess hall. Upstairs, another hall forms a horse shoe, marking the clients’ progress through the “Off the Street” portion of the program. The first 32 or so beds are reserved for the homeless, which The Healing Place also serves, allowing even the inebriated to stay. And they will not turn anyone away during times of severe heat or cold, below 32 degrees or above 90.
Clients who ultimately move downstairs progress to “Phase,” a stage that allows them more freedom with later curfews and better jobs in the largely self-sustaining facility. Clients work in the kitchen, do security detail, man the desk in the laundry room, and attend to other duties.
Directly across the street from the building that houses “Phase,” “Off the Street,” and a neighboring yellow brick building that holds NA and AA meetings several times a day is “Detox,” where clients spend their first three to five days. Some go through withdrawal and leave. Others enter the program.
In Detox, residents are not allowed any books, music or clothes other than pajamas. Cigarette donations are accepted and food is brought from across the street. There is a cork board in the hallway leading to the patient’s beds on which a photo has been taped or tacked of every known client or Detox resident to have died as a direct result of their addiction.
“Five years ago only a fourth of the thing was full,” says former Detox worker Joe Whitaker. “Now it seems like they’re gonna have to get a bigger board.”
Healing Place resident and peer mentor Spencer Johnson, once a successful insurance rep, explains, “It’s a non-medical detox, which means if a person is in jeopardy of going into seizures and dying, EMS is called. Otherwise nothing is offered to ‘wean’ them off. It’s a rough few days and it forces the addict to finally look in the mirror after running from themselves for so long.”
In his early thirties, Spencer looks to be the picture of health. Wearing a black T-shirt, cargo shorts and white tennis shoes, he’s trim – almost cut, in fact. This makes sense because the center’s clients have to walk to 12-step meetings and to their classes which, in the first stages of the program, are located almost three miles away on 4th and St. Catherine.
The Indiana native says he’s been to two other rehab facilities. “One of those places was on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago where I was working and it cost forty thousand bucks. But there was nowhere near the level of unconditional love I feel here. Actually, I’ve never felt anything like this anywhere in my life.”
The women’s facility is housed in a much nicer building on 15th Street near the Park Hill Projects. It looks more like a modern, private college or high school, with its art deco flair, state-of-the-art exercise and meditation rooms and a garden and playground for women with children.
“We’re so jealous,” Spencer says of the 6-month-old addition. “They got it so good over there.”
The Healing Place follows what professionals call the social model for recovery. Clients will more likely follow the lead of credible role models who have walked in their shoes. Whereas, a doctor may or may not have any idea what it’s like to wake up every morning and have your primary need no longer be for food, shelter or love, but rather for a cheaply created substance sold in tiny vials, cellophane or tin foil.
Kema Jamal found herself, after a charmed and illustrious life, in a jail cell with only The Healing Place to give her any hope for a future. She looks nothing like the photograph that comes up when her name is Googled – a shot that flashed on the evening news and showed up in the paper the morning after she was arrested for leaving her two children alone in an extended-stay hotel along Interstate 64. She had put them to bed and taken a cab from Hurstbourne Lane to the West End – to the very projects that neighbor her new home – to buy cocaine. In the mug shot, Kema’s face is jaundiced and emaciated, her nappy hair frazzled, jutting out in every possible direction, her eyes faded and glazed over.
The picture looks nothing like the woman of the same name who has now completed The Healing Place program and is living in the facility as a peer mentor – one who guides new clients through the process – for the princely sum of sixty dollars a week.
Kema accepts her situation, as she knows it is part of giving back which, essentially, along with donations, is the only way the free recovery center stays open.
The bronze-skinned recovering addict started in what many, especially traditional moralists, would consider hell. Her father was an Egyptian oil man who, along with his wife and mother-in-law, had stakes in the black market trade in Casper, Wyoming, where Kema was born.
“My grandmother ran the most famous brothel in Casper, maybe even all of Wyoming,” Kema states, some London fog in her voice, traces of her mother’s country of birth.
Both parents used – her father a heroin addict, her mother a daily pot smoker. She was given no structure whatsoever, yet went to college for dance on scholarship and ended up next to J-Lo on “In Living Color.” She also taught dance at several prestigious universities, worked with the best dance troupes in London, Chicago and Los Angeles and maintained heavy involvement in many non-profit organizations, such as The Boys and Girls Club of America.
Currently, besides assisting her “sisters,” as she calls them, in the recovery program, Kema focuses her efforts on developing The Kema Jamal American Theater Company – not for New York or L. A., but for the city where she found salvation.
She now looks more like a dancer, her dark brown hair parting like a curtain, hiding one eye and giving a glimpse of her face, now full and bright, almost stoic in her serenity.
And though she dresses in running pants and T-shirts, and doesn’t seem to worry too much about make-up, she has a grace and beauty that those fancy women of Lake Shore Drive and Fifth Avenue couldn’t buy, even with a black Visa card. And the rooms of The Healing Place – each containing two beds and a dresser, on top of which, more often than not, sit the residents’ only possessions: photos of estranged or deceased loved ones, Bibles, Big Books, or, in Kema’s case, the Koran – feel more like home than a lot of the houses in Anchorage or Martha’s Vineyard.
Kema’s daughter – whose first birthday her mother missed because her custodial rights were nil – is called Nevaeh. The name is “Heaven” spelled backwards, perhaps a slightly imperfect metaphor for Kema’s journey to redemption. Kema, who recently regained custody of her children and is seeing them again for the first time in nine months, says of future birthdays, “I’m not missing another one.”
Most people try to get to heaven by leading godly lives from day one. Others take the low road, and find heaven by accident.