Man's story testifies to drug's hold over addicts


IHAVE HEARD a lot of horror stories about drug addiction over the years, and the one Sheila Helgerson tells goes into the Top Ten of testaments to the power of heroin over a man's life. Helgerson, executive director of Earl's Place, a transitional home on East Lombard Street for men trying to move from homelessness and drug abuse to a life of normality and recovery, tells of a former client named Clayton whose right arm became so infected from years of shooting heroin that doctors had to amputate it.

According to Helgerson, Clayton, who is in his 30s, had at least two failed attempts at recovery. But while he was no longer a resident of Earl's Place, he stayed in touch. "One day I saw him and I asked him about the phantom pains he used to experience," Helgerson says. "He wasn't wearing his prosthesis, and he said, 'I sold it the last time I went back out'" on the street.

It's hard to imagine what the market would be for a presumably custom-fitted artificial arm, but Helgerson believed Clayton. "Yes," she says. "He even said he needed money because he was trying to get another arm." (Since coming across Helgerson's story, I've heard another tale of a local dealer "holding" an addict's prosthesis as collateral against a drug "loan.")

"The disease of addiction is enormous," Helgerson says. And it's probably Baltimore's biggest challenge - making whole and healthy again the thousands of men and women who do anything - crimes against others, crimes against themselves - for drugs.

Class struggle reveals itself with SB 509

When I last saw documentarians Andrew Kolker and Louis Alvarez, they were at work on a film about class in America. As a matter of fact, they interviewed me on the subject at Lexington Market several months ago, and their questions were some of the most challenging I've ever faced. Apparently, everyone has a hard time with the subject. Both Kolker and Alvarez believe that we either refuse to acknowledge it as a dynamic in American life or avoid talking about it. Race is probably easier to discuss than class.

Kolker and Alvarez could have found plenty of material in the fight over SB 509, the Baltimore County community renewal proposal that went down to big defeat in Tuesday's election. Classism - some would call it elitism, or arrogance - was at play in the initiative's underlying message: Certain communities (Essex and Middle River, in particular) could use some physical and social uplift; the waterfront has not reached its potential as a destination for the affluent tourist/boating crowd. There are too many vestiges of blue-collar Baltimore County, not enough yuppification. Too many johnboats, not enough sailboats. Too many ranchers, not enough condos.

That's probably not how the county executive intended it to be perceived. His heart was in the correct place - getting certain sections of the county a piece of the economic boom they were presumed to have missed.

But the subtext - Towson ordering uplift for Essex - is what provoked the visceral response among longtimers in the southeastern end of the county. It's what led to the political fight of Dutch Ruppersberger's life.

Lieutenant governor lines up Yule crowd

Meanwhile, I see where the experts believe Tuesday's election bodes darkness for Dutch and glad tidings for Kathleen K. Townsend, our Democratic lieutenant governor who has eyes on the Big Chair in Annapolis in 2002.

She's already locked up a lot of early campaign contributions - did that fat-cat Hyannis thing last summer - and she has another pay-to-schmooze fest planned for Martin's West. This one comes on Dec. 5, amid the holiday shopping season. With tickets at $1,000 and $500, you can tell this one isn't for the Christmas Club crowd.

I hope there's a scene like the final one in "It's A Wonderful Life," with everyone singing, "Hark the Herald" and the usual movers and shakers handing KKT a big basket of money. Hee Haw!

School worker's death leaves void for 6 children

Sharon Dohony, a special education teacher at Deep Creek Middle School in Essex, Baltimore County, says the staff there was not only shaken by the recent death of school assistant Wendy Alexander but by the scope of the loss. Alexander had six children, including twins, and she was their sole support.

Alexander died Oct. 31. She was 37. "She was diagnosed with liver cancer only two weeks before her death," Dohony says. "I don't think she had any medical insurance. ...

"Wendy was a divorced, single mom, and truly an inspiration. She was a strong woman who had not had an easy life, but she refused to give up. She worked two and three jobs in order to stay off welfare so that her daughters would have a good role model. She'd work all day here, then work in the after-care at Sandalwood Elementary. ... I met Wendy five years ago when she began working at Deep Creek. In the years she worked here, she grew tremendously. For the last three years, she ran our time-out center, and she did a lot of counseling with the kids, and impacted so many of them."

Alexander had no insurance. Her ex-husband paid for part of the funeral, Dohony says, with the balance coming from a collection at Deep Creek. Two other schools where Alexander's children are students - Chesapeake High and Sandalwood - also raised money.

"It was my sister's wish that all the children stay together," says Alexander's sister, Bridgette Simmons. "But we haven't sat down to work out all those arrangements yet." The father of the four oldest children lives in the Baltimore area, she says, while Alexander's mother, Patricia Foushee, resides in Florida. "We have to work out what's best for the children," Simmons says.

Wherever the children end up, there will be tremendous financial need. No one has established a fund for the kids, but there's talk about it. "I have never involved myself in a situation like this before," Dohony says. "But I can't sit back and do nothing. Wendy was an outstanding woman who was forced to leave her children. They are devastated. All we can do now is try to help them to have a more comfortable future."

Dohony can be reached Tuesdays through Thursdays at Deep Creek.

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