Smoke a rock or punch a clock?

An under-publicized effort in the nation's capital turns addicts into employees

Issue: "A reason to live," March 23, 1996

His month the new york times and pat Buchanan-strange bedfellows-have shone spotlights on the dilemmas of workers displaced by economic change; this week's WORLD article (pages 18 and 19) illuminates another side of the story. But there's another war for jobs being waged not far from the Capitol in Washington, a war fought one soul at a time, and so far it has received little publicity.

A report on this war should begin with a look at one of its generals, Marsh Ward. Eight years ago Mr. Ward came to Washington, D.C., to build a haven for homeless alcoholics and addicts. He set up his detox program to have no rules ("they're all adults, aren't they?") and no pressure to prepare for a job ("nothing good available under capitalism, anyway").

Eight years later the program run by Mr. Ward and a partner, Julia Lightfoot, is called Clean and Sober Streets, and those who enter it have a different set of rules and expectations: One strike (drinking, fighting, doing drugs, coming in late) and you're out. Don't think of yourself as a victim. When you're clean and sober you can get a job.

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What happened to change Mr. Ward's thinking? He spoke softly while padding past the curtained cubicles where recent addicts lie: "Back in 1988 we believed that if you brought people in off the streets and gave them food, they'd pull themselves together and get on with their lives." But after a year he realized, "If you treat them that way, you're killing them. You're enabling them to stay with their disease." Mr. Ward also was troubled by the drug dealers who infested his rule-free program: "They could deal all day, then come back here for a room and hot meal, get their food stamps and welfare, then go back out and deal the next day."

Soon, to protect residents who did want to beat their addictions, Mr. Ward established rules: "Real simple: No violence, no sex. If you sit down, get too comfortable, make no progress, you're out. Any stealing, you're out. No alcohol, no drugs-not even legal ones, unless I've approved them. If you miss the curfew by one minute, you're out."

At first, Mr. Ward's tendency was to accept excuses for violations: "We did it sometimes just out of mercy, or sympathy because we like the guy-but it never worked out. Every time we let someone get by, he screwed up again. It's hard to kick people out, but you also have to think of the effect on the honest people."

One of the lines of the lord's prayer-"lead me not into temptation"-explains why Mr. Ward examines every prescription his residents receive: "Doctors have no sense when it comes to this group. They'll give you stuff that will get you high. Just today I told a guy to leave. He's on Paraflex, the muscle relaxant. We went to his locker today, got the bottle. He had taken 55 of them in the last two days. And now he's out. That's what we mean. He's an addict. And if it helps you to relax and feel good, you'll take more than is prescribed. So we play hardball."

Walks through Clean and Sober Streets show that law and order has taken over what once was a human zoo. Interviews with many of the 80 residents show that they welcome the hardball approach and are ready to report on rulebreakers. (One resident said, "This program is saving my life. If someone messes it up, I have no hesitancy going to the office and telling them about it.")

Mr. Ward remembers that when the program began "there was a snitch mentality because a lot of these guys had been in prison. They wouldn't talk. Now, they feel a part of this society." And that carries over to the world outside the Clean and Sober walls: Graduates of the program have responsible jobs and are building families.

That the capitalist world is not so bad has also been a revelation for Mr. Ward: "I've found that this society has a place for everyone who is sober and responsible, who has a skill and is willing to work. No problem."

One definition of a neoconservative in politics is "a liberal mugged by reality." Mr. Ward's experience is similar: "Yes, there's racism and injustice. But, on the other hand, if I take a guy from outside, sober him up, teach him how to read, and teach him the computer, there's a hole in the wall for that man. He goes right through."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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