On an August afternoon in Sandtown-Winchester some two dozen men gather in a third-floor room, bringing with them all the stories mean streets can yield.
Addiction, eviction, guns, no jobs, no hope. And for at least half of them, close encounters with the criminal justice system.
But their lives yield good stories too, especially now that this room has given them something that doesn't exist on the streets -- the safety to bare their feelings, share their troubles and, in time, a chance to offer hope born of experience to another brother mired in despair.
Welcome to Men's Services, an outgrowth of Healthy Start, Baltimore's federally funded assault on the city's high infant-mortality rate. Most such programs aim for mothers, and Healthy Start is no exception. But credit this effort with the common sense to recognize that healthy families need healthy fathers too -- and with the insight that "help" doesn't have to be expensive or complicated.
The men in these twice-weekly groups have many things in common. What makes them eligible to attend is fatherhood, a role often unfilled in their own boyhoods. Learning to become more than biological fathers is a central focus for these sessions. As if to emphasize that point a 14-month-old plays quietly at their feet, when not moving from lap to lap.
For these men, fatherhood can be a lifeline, a reason to put their guns away, to mend relationships with their wives or girlfriends, the inspiration to get up every day and try again to kick a habit, find a job, become a loving, respected presence in their children's lives and a positive force in their community.
The power of this idea is tangible. On T-shirts around the circle there are the usual celebrity and sports motifs. But a handful of men are proudly wearing Healthy Start T-shirts emblazoned with a drawing of mother and nursing child and the slogan "Breast Fed Is Best Fed."
A decade ago in Sandtown-Winchester, breast-feeding was virtually non-existent. But when fathers get excited about its benefits, you can bet more women give it a try.
On this afternoon, a young man is losing a battle with drugs.
After "Libations," an opening ceremony paying tribute to elders and forebears, Joe Jones, director of Men's Services and the group's savvy leader, turns the group's attention to the figure, eyes half-closed, slumped in his chair. He becomes the focus of a series of pep talks, assuring him that if he can stay clean three days he'll make it, exhorting him to do it "if not for yourself, then for your kid."
Mr. Jones gently asks the young man what the biggest problem is. "I'm tired, man," he says.
"No, just tired of waiting."
Waiting for a treatment slot -- a common experience in this group. Soon comes a show of hands. How many brothers here have had to wait to get into treatment? Several hands go up. Later comes another question: How many have gotten clean, then had to wait for a job? Again, a common experience.
Waiting, patience, making sure you're ready when opportunity knocks -- it's part of life everywhere. But in places like Sandtown-Winchester where hope comes hard, the waiting game is too often a dead-end street.
Besides linking these men to their families, another goal of the program is making the waiting game worthwhile by offering men what they most need -- a chance to work. They have to prove they're drug-free, and a participant at this meeting is praised for being honest enough to admit he wasn't yet ready for a scheduled drug test, which is required for the program's pre-employment screening.
But if the men keep their part of the bargain, the Healthy Start program moves heaven and earth to keep its. John Carter, a 32-year-old father of seven and a stalwart of this group, kicked heroin and cocaine and now works as a building assistant in a Healthy Start facility. He proudly tells the group he has moved his family from a drug-infested block to a quieter street.
Paul Hope, a 22-year-old father of two, readily says that before this group gave his life a different focus, he was "like a loaded gun waiting to go off." Now he is part of a growing cadre of Healthy Start fathers who are learning construction trades by working on rehabs in the Sandtown-Winchester area. He dreams of the time his 3-year-old son will say, "My hero is my daddy."
The program is also forging links to other employers in town, which could prove crucial to its continued success. The meeting is compelling proof that group therapy -- group caring -- is a powerful force for street-hardened men for whom society allows no show of weakness. Connect that to their hearts -- their kids -- and to their hopes -- a job that will give them self-respect -- and you have a tool for turning dead-end lives around.
These men are far from perfect, and this group has plenty of failures. But it offers hope and help for those ready to accept it. At this meeting, the fellow mired in his drug habit made no obvious commitment to trying harder to stay clean. But as the group wore on, he looked more alert. And when the formal session ended and it was time for fellowship and food, he announced, "I'm hungry."
It might be a start.
Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.