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City church opens home to give addicts a place to make a clean start


A recovering addict can find trouble around plenty of corners in Highlandtown, where, as in many Baltimore neighborhoods, a bar or a drug dealer are rarely out of walking distance.

Joy Sweeney knows this because, not so long ago, she lived a drunken and desperate existence. She found solace in her family and in Alcoholics Anonymous, but she knew plenty of people who, after detox, had nowhere safe to go.

So when her church, Nazareth Lutheran, began debating what to do with two rowhouses it owned on Bank Street, Sweeney suggested opening a group home for male alcoholics and drug addicts. She envisioned a house that would provide a safe, clean and empathetic environment for the newly sober. The idea quickly gained backing from the congregation, and yesterday, about a year after Sweeney proposed the idea, Nazareth House opened.

The house will provide the sort of spiritual support that government can't offer, said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who cut the ribbon at yesterday's opening ceremony.

"We can pay for the urinalysis and the inpatient programs, but eventually, these people have to go back to the real world," O'Malley said. "And they need a group setting like this, because that transition can be very harsh."

Although many city churches offer recovery support groups, few run long-term housing for addicts. Sweeney said she hopes Nazareth House will be a model for other area churches.

The house can hold up to eight men, the first of whom will probably move in this week. The residents, who will be able to stay as long as they want, will run the house - cooking, paying the cable, phone and electric bills, electing house officers and voting on the admission of new residents. They will be expected to either work or volunteer.

Sweeney based the self-sufficient style on Oxford House, a national chain of more than 600 recovery homes.

"With recovery, you need to take responsibility," she said. "In houses where you have a paid manager, favoritism usually creeps in and you lose that feeling of everyone having an equal voice."

The crew of about 30 who helped Sweeney ready the house with new furniture, carpet and paint included many of her friends from AA. All said they backed the idea because comfortable, supportive environments were vital to their recoveries.

"It's so easy to lose your way if you go right back into the environment that propelled you down the road to addiction in the first place," said Mike Bardzik of Cockeysville, whose flooring company donated the carpets for the house. "This will be a place where the other people around are sharing the same experience of recovery."

Sweeney said she encountered resistance to the house from neighbors, but appeased most by telling them any resident caught using drugs or alcohol would be evicted immediately.

"They should be happy - this may be the only house for a couple of blocks that is drug- and alcohol-free," she joked.

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