Offering a helping hand


Kevin Sheehan had a wife, a home and an insurance business. Jerome West was a sales representative for a Baltimore appliance parts company.

That was before drugs and alcohol landed them on the streets. Now they reside at Helping Up Mission, a faith-based residential treatment center for homeless men in East Baltimore.

Founded in 1885 to minister to the poor, the shelter was praised by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last week during his State of the State address, as he emphasized his commitment to drug treatment and faith-based programs.

Helping Up provides drug treatment beds for 140 men who stay at least a year and receive a variety of assistance, from General Education Development diploma classes to job training. There is a waiting list for the program, said volunteer David McQuay, a member of the shelter's board of directors.

Religion is stressed at the shelter. The men are encouraged to attend chapel services, to read the Bible and to develop fellowship with one other.

Program participants say the first 60 days are the toughest. During that time, they are allowed to leave only for doctor's appointments, court hearings or family emergencies -- and even then, they must be chaperoned.

But many men, including West and Sheehan, said they see that restrictive period as a blessing.

Sheehan arrived at Helping Up Mission after spending five days in drug treatment at Montgomery General Hospital, where he was hospitalized after aimlessly wandering the streets, contemplating suicide.

"At first, you hate it," said Sheehan, 40. "But it made me evaluate where I wanted to go in my life, look at what I had done, not so much from a guilt standpoint, but how I can help others not go down that road."

Now Sheehan works in the development office, serving as a liaison between the shelter and the public. He doesn't like to think about where he might be had he not gotten into Helping Up.

West fears he could have died.

"When I was 37, I didn't think I would make it to be 38," said West, who celebrated that milestone last month. "But I thank God. It's the first time in a long time that I celebrated my birthday clean and sober."

The father of a son, 16, and a daughter, 9, West said he was addicted to heroin, cocaine and alcohol. His parents used to worry all the time that he was in grave danger, but now they rest easy knowing he's at the shelter, he said.

During his speech, Ehrlich mentioned Keith Daye, an assistant manager at Sheraton Inner Harbor who had a 25-year heroin addiction and who got help from the mission.

McQuay said Daye, 2001 Employee of the Year at the Sheraton, is among many of the program's "success" stories.

One reason Helping Up works, McQuay said, is the length of time that participants stay.

"There are a number of organizations that work with men who are dealing with problems associated with drugs and alcohol, but they're short term," McQuay said. "We think the longer we can work with the men, the better their chances of recovery."

City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson said Helping Up "is one of the better faith-based programs in the city."

"We need more treatment," Beilenson said. "And it's very clear in talking to a lot of folks that a spiritual component is very important in their recovery process."

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he'd like to see more shelters for addicts, "if they could be as disciplined and run as well" as Helping Up Mission.

"They've got some pretty strict internal rules that all of the guys enforce for the sake of each other," O'Malley said. "Some people don't cut it. Some people can't stay. Unfortunately that's the way you've got to be."

West has been at the shelter for 61 days and plans to stay awhile.

"You don't plant a seed and look for a flower to come the next day," West said. "If I stay here, I know I will continue to prosper and grow. I'll be a better father, a better son, a better brother and a better man of society."

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