Panama City Rescue Mission

Faith-based finalists | On-the-street ministry and flexibility put addicts on the road to recovery

Issue: "The audacity of real change," Aug. 23, 2008

PANAMA CITY, Fla.-Eleven days sober isn't long for a lifelong alcoholic, but Tony White, 52, said repeatedly, "I've been sober for 11 days." That's seven in detox and four more in the Pathways program at Panama City Rescue Mission (PCRM), a homeless shelter in Florida's panhandle that features drug and alcohol rehab. He took a cigarette from behind his ear and studied it, rolling it between his fingers. His brown eyes were clouded and deeply bloodshot as he hung up his apron and stepped outside for a smoke between chores and chapel.

Where White stood near the corner of East 6th Street and Allen Avenue, homeless individuals, members of the general public, and Mission residents all mingled, slumping in the shade and resting their elbows on the dingy, peach-colored stucco walls of the mission. Only four days into Pathways, White had already faced a trial.

"Come here," White recalled a visitor on the street saying as he held up a pint-sized bottle of vodka. "So I had a swig," White shrugged. "OK, more than a swig." He got caught. "Blew hot," he said, referring to the breathalyzer test administered each night at the door. He could have been expelled, but he was "just straight up honest with them." He'd been drinking his whole life-how could he be perfect now? "I've been sober for 11 days," he said. Apparently swigs don't count.

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"We are here on the streets," said executive director Billy Fox, an ordained Baptist minister. "We are not on lockdown here." He believes that overly structured rehabilitation inhibits residents' ability to make good decisions on their own. The mission operates on the principle that it's compassionate to allow the exercise of free will, and then to offer correction as a consequence.

The 29 men and 19 women in the PCRM program average a year at Pathways. Each resident carries unique baggage on the road to recovery. "Some only need 10 days," Fox said, "Some need long-term help." The stages, including evaluation, two learning phases, a work internship, and an interim period, are meant to prime students for productive citizenship.

Still, free will can be surprising. At about 9 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, a woman clad only in two towels and carrying a bundle of clothes emerged from the women's residence showers in full view of Fox and WORLD. The residences are supposed to be empty then. She ran into her room, saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," as Fox turned his head and sidestepped out of eyeshot.

The tour continued with a peek into the men's emergency dorm where a guy sleeping on a top bunk flinched at the light and pulled the blanket up toward his face. Fox shut the door and left him alone.

Around lunchtime a reporter from the local newspaper, the Panama City News Herald, called to request an interview about the mission's back-to-school clothes program, Klothes for Kids. On the drive to the Panama City Mall in his convertible Chrysler Sebring, Fox rattled off the facts: Bay County school district tallies over 450 children as homeless; families cannot afford to buy clothes to match the new uniform policy; last year Klothes for Kids provided shoes, socks, underwear, backpacks, jeans, and a personal shopper to 980 children; this year, the goal is to clothe 220 more.

Fox arrived to find volunteer youths hanging jeans and lining up shoes in a former Bath and Body Works store. He gave the newspaper reporter the statistics and nailed the sound bite for the paper's website, eyes locking on the lens and words forming complete sentences. He didn't mention the mission's focus on evangelizing because he wanted to portray Klothes for Kids as a service project. He said later that he tells reporters what they want to hear: "It's what I want them to get a hold of and promote so I can get the community's attention instead of community tension."

Back at the mission, Randy Kukla was manning the front desk where he works about 36 hours a week. In his evaluation period, a team of managers assessed his compatibility with Pathways. When Kukla moved into the mission five days before Christmas 2007, he relied on alcohol to get him through the struggle of separating from his wife. He was even drunk at the mission: "They had known for weeks that I was drinking." But staffers didn't offer correction until he had a seizure and hit his head on the bathroom urinal. The jolt of his body shutting down and the possibility of losing his bunk prompted Kukla to apply to the mission's rehab program.


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