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Saving throwaway lives; Once he was just another junkie looking for his next blast. Now he's the founder of eight halfway houses, helping Baltimore addicts find redemption.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ADDICTION'S MADNESS made him snatch the dealer's gold chain. Now he was paying for it, lying face up on a northwest Baltimore sidewalk, five .32-caliber bullets in his gut.

A police officer stood over him, his laughing face looming against the night sky. The cop bent down to draw a chalk line around his bleeding body. The officer wouldn't mind seeing him go. He'd been nothing but trouble, a throwaway junkie.

He called out for someone, anyone, to go get his brother. No sense waiting for the cop to call an ambulance.

He could have died on that sidewalk, or in the hospital where he spent two months recovering from the gunshot wounds, or in the abandoned car where he lived, or any of the times he overdosed during 30 years of heroin addiction. But Israel Cason did not die.

And because he did not die, Baltimore has eight more halfway houses, all set up by Cason without a dime from the government, all set up in the last year and a half, all performing daily the near-miracle of salvaging throwaway lives. An extraordinary task in the best of circumstances; a herculean task for a newly recovering dope fiend.

City Hall honored Cason last August, declaring the 29th "I Can't We Can Day," after the name of his program. At last count, 87 men and women were in the program, all holding to one simple rule: "Change you must, or die you will."

Courts recommend addicts to the program. "It's one of the better halfway houses, definitely, in Baltimore City," says probation officer Cornelius Woodson.

Cason accepts the accolades, puts the City Hall plaque on the wall, and keeps on moving. To him, "It's about saving souls."

"I know what it took to save my soul," he says. "It wasn't people. It was divine intervention. See, I'm supposed to have been dead. I been shot up, cut up, stabbed up. OD'd over 20-something times -- way over. I can't even count the times. I mean, I stayed in a ambulance."

You look for signs of his heroin addiction -- he's clean just three years -- and find none in this 6-foot-3, robust 47-year-old. Ask him about his mission, the country's drug policy, the needs of recovering addicts, and he drops his usually upbeat mood.

"I don't condone nothing that deals with substance abuse," he says. "I just deal with total abstinence. Giving out needles, putting people on methadone. That's not going to get it. The people that's doing that, they're playing the devil's advocate."

A lifetime passed before Israel Cason could speak those words.

Back from the wilderness

The sister who helped raise him says this was bound to happen. Sitting in her Greenmount Avenue restaurant, Sheila Cason, "Miss Shug" to all the world, says, "I say, 'Impo. You were out there in that wilderness because God wanted you to lead them on in. This is your calling.' "

Looking back, it's easy to talk about divine intervention. Events lend themselves to such interpretations. But that's hindsight.

He was born Oct. 21, 1951. Pearline Cason delivered him on the first floor of their home at 210 E. Lafayette St. He was the seventh of 11 children. Pearline and Presley Cason were a strong, churchgoing couple. She was a seamstress; he worked in a brickyard. They called Israel "Imp," or "Impo," because he was always getting into things.

He grew up shining shoes, turning cartwheels, cutting up for white folks who tossed a few coins his way in the segregated Baltimore of the 1950s. Later, he rigged phone booths to steal change and broke into freight cars with his childhood buddy, Earl Blue. A yard bull shot him in the leg on one of those forays. He told doctors the wounding was an accident.

For fun, neighborhood boys would load a revolver with one bullet, give the barrel a spin, then fire at each other.

"That's the kind of neighborhood it was," says Blue, 46. "If you wasn't on your p's and q's, you'd get swallowed up, incarcerated or in the graveyard."

Cason was smart. He spent sixth grade studying French and algebra with the white kids in Waverly. He arrived at Clifton Park Junior High ahead of the class. He could stay out all week, show up on Friday and ace the test.

A huge, abandoned house became his other school. People sniffed glue, shot dope, smoked marijuana. When an older brother enrolled at prestigious Baltimore Polytechnic High School, Israel studied and made the grades to enroll, too. He just wanted to show everyone he could get in.

"I didn't want to go to school there. It was nothing but white boys there. You had to wear a necktie," he says. "But I went. Put a tie on, and my Italian knits."

School couldn't hold him. He wanted an addict's "mug broke-down" look and disengaged attitude. Junkies seemed the essence of ghetto cool.

"I used to watch the guys who got high," he says. "I wanted tracks. It looked real slick to me. I wanted the big hands. I wanted the abscesses.

"I know it sounds crazy now. You start experimenting, and this becomes your family."

Those days of play led to 30 years of pain. At 15, he was arrested for drug dealing. At 17, the charges were assault and drug possession. He never graduated from Poly. Instead, he went to the state prison farm in Hagerstown.

By 19, he was married, selling bean pies for the Nation of Islam, working as a mechanic at Sparrows Point and selling dope. Drugs were the one constant in his life. Everything else came and went -- jobs, marriage, faith. Arrests piled up in the mid-1970s. He lost his wife and three kids, his home, the trucking company he had come to own.

"After that, I was just off to the races," he says. "I started getting crazy with the dope. Dope will take you down every time. Don't matter how much money you have."

Once, he overdosed in front of his mother, passing out in mid-sentence from a shot of heroin cut with horse tranquilizer. His family revived him by pouring ice down his pants.

A few months before he was almost shot to death, in 1980, he took up with Patricia Snowden. She didn't like him at first, thought he was too loud. Then they met again at a nightclub and danced every song. Soon they were running together, getting high together, having a son they named Ishmael. Sometimes they kept him, sometimes they sent him to live with family. They were in and out of jail, but always found each other.

Dope controlled Cason's life, yet a good side of him kept coming through. If he saw a friend in need, he stopped, even if he was on his way to buy a blast of heroin.

"That's his nature, period," says Miss Shug, 54. "That's what God gave him. And whatever state his mind was in, his nature overrode it."

Even as an addict, people looked up to him.

"It was like that commercial: 'When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen,' " says Snowden. "When people used to tell me he wasn't sh--, what are you doing with that junkie? I would say, 'his heart.' "

Getting clean

There comes a time in an addict's life, if he's lucky and lives long enough, when he says, "I'm tired."

For Cason, that time came in December 1995. There was no grand epiphany, just a soul-weary fatigue. He was 44, with nothing to show for himself. Many junkies he'd known were dead or gone to prison. Some were still hustling, the drugs devouring them one hit at a time.

That wasn't the case with Earl Blue, Cason's old running buddy. Blue had cleaned up. Blue had looked into his mother's eyes and heard her dying wish: "Don't forget to pray for him."

His cousin, Calvin Jacobs, the family's other dope fiend, had gone to a Philadelphia treatment program called "Stop and Surrender." Now Calvin was tutoring schoolkids.

Cason was just a coldblooded bum living in an abandoned Chevy Nova. Miss Shug had put him out of her house that summer, telling him, "You're not using my house for no shooting gallery." Now she had news for him. Calvin was in town on a weekend pass. Calvin looked good. Didn't he want to go back with Calvin? He knew what was going on in Philadelphia.

"That's a cold-turkey program," he told her. "I might have a cardiac arrest."

"Cardiac arrest, my butt," she replied. "What you think an OD is?"

He hemmed and hawed. Cold-turkey was too much hell to go through. Maybe he could start taking methadone, join Calvin later. She shook her head. Calvin was leaving that Sunday night. Was he going or not?

She kept stopping by, talking about Calvin, offering to pay his way to Philly. He couldn't make up his mind -- until he saw his baby cousin. Gone was the pale, ashen look of a beat-up junkie. Calvin was shining. He had money in his pocket and wasn't talking about buying dope.

"He was free," says Cason. "That's what I wanted to be, free from this addiction."

That Sunday morning, he and Snowden woke up needing a fix. She went off to shoplift and get enough money for a blast. Police caught her before she could make the 9 p.m. Greyhound out of Baltimore. Maybe that was fate, divine intervention. The bus had only one seat left.

"If she had come, I might have said: 'That's OK. I'll take the next bus,' " says Cason.

He stowed the three plastic garbage bags holding his belongings and got on the bus, high from the dope bought with Miss Shug's money. He shot up again in the Philly bus station, then tossed his tools in the trash.

'You got to tell somebody'

He spent the first day sweating and retching, kicking the dope out of his system. But within a few weeks, he went to work. The kitchen rang with his voice singing along to gospel tapes or the Persuasions' "Street Corner Symphony." He and another resident started a choir.

The north Philly rowhouse where Israel and Calvin lived, one of several owned by "Stop and Surrender," became known as the spiritual house. The men didn't tell war stories. They talked about saving their souls. Still, he always kept $13, enough for a one-way ticket home.

By his fourth month, he felt comfortable coming home on weekends. He helped out in Miss Shug's restaurant and talked about recovery.

"I had to tell everybody," he says. "That's the only way I can see how to stay clean. You got to tell somebody."

By September 1996, he was home to stay. He started taking friends to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and talking to addicts he hired for his part-time contracting work. He wanted to do more. He wanted to do in Baltimore what "Stop and Surrender" had done in Philadelphia.

He heard about a house for rent on Dukeland Street off North Avenue in West Baltimore. It needed work, but he could have it for $375 a month. He moved in with his son, built bunk beds and put the word out.

"When I saw that little house, I thought, 'What is this Negro doing?' " says Blue.

But by spring 1997, the house was filled with addicts Cason knew from the old days. His message to them mixed standard 12-step philosophy, an intense spirituality and an understanding of addiction earned from surviving the worst of that life. It was simple: Addicts talking to other addicts, and talking from the heart.

"You got to learn how to recognize Satan," Cason would tell them. "If you let your guard down and don't focus on your recovery, Satan will ease up on you -- 'Come on, man.' "

Their days took on a strict regimen: up at 5:30 a.m.; lights out at 11 p.m. They met at least three times a day to talk openly and honestly about their problems, their lives, their struggles. Men and women were housed separately. Newcomers, called "blackouts," were accompanied at all times for the first 60 days. Much of the program was based on "Stop and Surrender."

When Snowden got out of prison that summer and didn't find Cason in the usual place -- the corners around Gwynn Oak and Liberty Heights -- she knew he had changed.

"I looked at him and said: 'My man!' " she says. "He just looked so good, so cleaned up, so bright. It made me feel like wanting to change."

The neighbors weren't sure about the new house. Irene Mallory, 77, had lived on Dukeland Street since 1951. She had seen the neighborhood become a place where drug dealers sell at will. Now addicts were moving in? She and other members of Citizens for Community Improvement waited to see what would happen.

Bishop William A. Thomas, pastor of St. Matthew's Gospel Tabernacle Apostolic Faith Church, thought the addicts might be another group that was all talk.

"I have people come through here all the time, 'Well, I'm trying to do this.' But the test is, come back and see me," he says.

A week after the addicts first met with Thomas, they came back, offering to lend a hand. He asked them to watch over an outdoor revival. Soon, St. Matthew's adopted "I Can't We Can." Thomas let them hold meetings in the church basement. Their choirs sang together.

"They look out for the church, and we look out for them. They look out for the community," he says. "Their secret is sincerity. And another thing, they're not waiting. They see the war is right now. It's not next year. It's here, and it's right now."

They showed up at community meetings, gave out bread. Last summer, they won over Irene Mallory. She had waited months for the city to clean a weed-choked lot across from her tidy home. The city never came; the addicts did. They cleared the lot, then went on about their business.

Getting out the word

In less than two years, "I Can't We Can" grew from one house to eight, all but one clustered around Dukeland Street and West North Avenue. Everyone who came through, whether they stayed six months or six weeks, carried the word about a program where it didn't matter if you had insurance and a job, or had just left a shooting gallery and didn't have a dime.

The challenge is great. Some months "I Can't We Can" barely sustains itself. Yet the doors stay open. Donations, furniture and office supplies come from volunteer churches and by word of mouth. The cupboards are stocked through the addicts' work at a city food pantry. Some revenue comes from a carryout restaurant the program runs in Cason's old stomping grounds in Forest Park.

Those who can afford it pay a $75 admission fee, plus $200 per month. Some have the money; for others, the program helps set up welfare payments. By last fall, the monthly bills were up to about $15,000, Cason says. He wouldn't mind grants and government support, but he's wary of the restrictions they bring.

The program, run solely by recovering addicts, has helped more than 300 addicts. April Stewart was one of them.

Last summer Stewart was begging for food at Mondawmin Mall. That was her bottom. A stranger bought her something to eat and dropped her off at Liberty Medical Center. People there told her about a recovery program run by addicts on West North Avenue. In her 12 years of addiction, Stewart, 34, had been through dozens of recovery programs and detox centers. Only "I Can't We Can" worked for her.

"No, it's not fancy," she says. "You can go someplace like Oakview, where you can lay out and get fruit, where you can lay in your bed and smoke. I been to all those places. But they don't give you that tough love."

Within four months, she started managing one of the recovery houses for women. It was next door to a shooting gallery.

"Because [the program] is right in the heart of the drug neighborhood, you get to see people just like us, addicts, people who are still practicing, and you walk through and all of a sudden your spirit builds up, and you're proud and you're glad to be in that program," says Stewart, who has moved out and now helps run three health-food stores.

Donald Benjamin, 48, came to "I Can't We Can" last year through a court diversion program. It was a way out of a prison sentence. Rhonda Gilliam, 32, arrived in August, worn out and tired from spending half her life on addiction's treadmill.

Both stayed. Benjamin became Cason's right hand, intake supervisor and on-site manager, someone to depend on as Cason built the program. He and Gilliam became two of the program's public faces. They ferry clients to and from Liberty Medical Center for drug detox. They're in the courtroom when prisoners are recommended to the program.

Of course, it is not Baltimore's only recovery program. And just because someone comes to "I Can't We Can" doesn't mean they will stay for the preferred six months to a year. One co-founder relapsed and died from an overdose. Some leave voluntarily, some don't like the "tough love" and relentless self-examination.

"I say let them go, because I'm not going into the hellfire to save nobody," says Gilliam, who is studying to become a drug counselor. "They need some more pain, and I let them go get it. But I will pray for them."

For those who stay, the first step is an interview where they must reveal their innermost fears, their secrets. Then, and only then, when the burden has been shared, can they begin a real recovery.

The interview

"Respect the crate!"

The voice is harsh, commanding Joseph Timpson, 44, to sit up straight.

"Hold your head up!" says another voice.

He is sitting on a plastic milk crate in the living room of 2824 W. North Ave. He has been on the crate for almost an hour, telling his life story, answering questions Cason and the other men fire at him. Right now, they want him to tell a deep, dark secret.

He says he burglarized his brother's house. No one is impressed. There's not a junkie alive who hasn't ripped off a brother, a mother, a grandmother. His chest begins to heave. Beads of sweat break out on his forehead. He has never been through anything like this, forced to sit and not move his hands, speak only when spoken to.

Just a month ago he went through detox at Liberty Medical Center, then came here. He thought he was going to a treatment center in the county, someplace where he could go horseback riding. He ended up in West Baltimore, on a milk crate, with a roomful of addicts yelling at him.

He can't figure out what they want. He doesn't have any tales of incest. He did eight years on a 12-year robbery sentence. What do they want? Cason, sitting an arm's length away, breaks in.

"My name's Israel, and I'm an addict," he says. The greeting is a custom borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous.

Everyone except Timpson responds, "Hey, Israel."

Cason wants to know how long Timpson wants to stay in the program. Six months, maybe a year, says Timpson. Wrong answer.

"It ain't about time," Cason says, almost yelling. "If it's time for anything, it's time for you to get honest."

He knows Timpson is holding back. He sat on a crate for two hours in Philadelphia until the "Stop and Surrender" brothers broke him down. He knows every dope-fiend game.

"You're loaded down with burdens, and you think you can load up with recovery and live. Impossible!" he yells. "I was one and I ain't going for the okeydoke. You got pain, man, and it's valid. What you want to do, carry that pain?"

The group keeps pounding Timpson. He seems to change color, his face going from soft brown to all red and flushed.

The group keeps digging. What about the death of his parents and grandparents? He mentioned it as if it meant nothing. Is he trying to be convict-tough?

"We're trying to get you to reveal," says one member. "We're not trying to antagonize."

Finally, there is a breakthrough.

"When [my grandfather] died, it just crushed me. There was something missing. It was like a bone in my back was missing," Timpson says. Finally, he has stopped talking about what happened and started talking about how he feels.

After a few more questions, they send him up upstairs, tell him to look in the mirror and find three character defects. When he returns, Cason asks: "Are you willing to go through any and all lengths for your recovery?"

Timpson nods. One of the men brings an old housedress from the kitchen. They tell Timpson to put it on, go to the bus stop and yell, "I'm Joseph and I'm an addict and I need help!"

He looks bewildered. What extra humiliation is this? But he's too beat down to fight. He rolls up his pants legs, pushes his arms through the dress sleeves, shuffles into the night. But before he reaches the street, the men call him back. They have their answer.

Minutes later, he is full of energy. He can't stop talking.

"I had to get it out," he says. "I been left for dead. People told me they loved me, but they left me for dead. Oh yeah, I'm a-shine, man. I need help, man. I need to be surrounded by love."

'It's only a day'

Thanksgiving eve, and the addicts are as homesick as kids at summer camp. A gloom hangs over the meeting at St. Matthew's Church. They're supposed to be talking about recovery. Instead they're telling stories about the great times they had, the perfect dinners with all the trimmings. Sure, "I Can't We Can" is good, but it's not like real family.

This all stops when Israel Cason walks in. "I'm Israel and I'm an addict," he says.

"Hey, Israel." The response is halfhearted.

He pauses. "How many people got high last Thanksgiving?"

Dozens of hands go up.

"How many were locked up last Thanksgiving?"

More hands.

"Nobody in here cried on Thanksgiving unless they didn't get their blast," he says. "I missed a whole lot of family functions because the blast came first. If you weren't selling dope, I wasn't gon' be there."

Nervous laughter. The gloom starts to lift.

"It's only a day," he says. "That's all it is. But Satan will play tricks and get your focus off."

He goes on for a few minutes, then says, "We have a good way of closing." He calls on a member to "take us home." They stand, place their arms around each other and bow their heads. A voice begins.

"A moment of silence for the lost loved ones, for the still sick and suffering addicts inside and outside the circle, for the children who didn't have any say-so in the matter.

"Who gives us chance after chance after chance? God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. God's will, not mine, be done."

'Positive is always bigger'

The old Bronco pulls over at Lafayette and Argyle. It's midday. The voices of competing drug touters selling "Murderland" and "Nine" overlap.

Cason steps out. He is wearing his uniform: work boots, jeans, a heavy flannel jacket. For months he has wanted to bring "I Can't We Can" into another part of town. A friend in real estate told him about this abandoned beauty shop and old rowhouse in East Baltimore.

The house is huge, three stories. Squatters, junkies and whores were living here until neighbors called in police. A strip of yellow police tape is stretched across the stairs.

He checks both places, sees possibilities. They need work. The roofs are shot, the boilers ripped out. Cleaning these shells could take a week or more.

But the location is perfect. A group of recovering addicts could make a statement here, by standing tall and letting the world see them. He doesn't doubt that they will succeed.

"It's a positive vs. a negative," he says. "Positive is always bigger than a negative."

Promotion: Cason (center) and Marshall Wiggins (right) help Marvin Lewis move to a home for people further along in their recovery. Clients are expected to stay six months to a year.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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