Israel Cason used to put up the drug addicts who came to him for help in a dilapidated house he rented for $375 a month in West Baltimore.
Eight years later, Cason's program, I Can't We Can, is a viable nonprofit organization with 150 employees and 300 recovering addicts enrolled in the program. And yesterday, the group celebrated its latest expansion: Your Marketplace, a supermarket of sorts that includes a grocery store, prayer hall and massage therapy center.
The 10,000-square-foot space at 4432 Park Heights Ave. is open to the public.
"We're trying to establish a lifestyle of production in the middle of a place where there's a lifestyle of destruction," said Cason, 53, who is recovering from 30 years of heroin addiction.
It might have been Christmas, but business was brisk, with a steady stream of customers buying discounted deli meats, fresh produce, baby formula and other groceries.
Like many of the program's employees, store manager Cheryldine White has her own recovery story. Fifteen months ago, White's two teenage daughters kissed her goodbye and dropped her off at the steps of I Can't We Can. She was a broke single mother of five, having lost her $41,000-a-year job to a crack cocaine addiction that had become so intense, she said, that she took her son into a rough city neighborhood during Tropical Storm Isabel so she could buy drugs.
"My children hadn't seen me for a month because I had been on the run," White said.
She has been clean since, she said, and she credits her Muslim faith and the program's emphasis on spirituality for saving her life.
The marketplace also offers drug counseling, HIV testing and lessons in the martial art of tai chi. The program teaches recovery through spirituality, hence the Muslim prayer room and massage therapy. People of all faiths are welcome.
A total of 600 people have graduated from the one-year program, said Cason, who founded I Can't We Can in 1997. The nonprofit organization charges clients up to $300 a month, but the fees are often waived for those who cannot afford the program. I Can't We Can also relies on funds from its other ventures, including a barbershop, discount store and taxi service.
The marketplace is near Oakford Avenue, in a blighted neighborhood known for drug trafficking.
Billy Taylor knows the streets well. He said he roamed them for decades to feed his addictions to heroin, alcohol, crack and LSD.
Taylor said decided to change his life 17 1/2 years ago. He had been partying in a Baltimore motel room for three days, doing more drugs than he can remember, and by the time he emerged from the room, he had to ask someone outside what day it was.
When he went home, he argued with his wife and then lay down on a bed in the basement.
"I was scared to go asleep because I might not wake up, and I was scared not to fall asleep because I might drop dead," Taylor said.
During recovery, he leaned on his Christian faith, and now hosts a radio talk show produced by I Can't We Can.
'You see yourself'
Jason Lamont Joyner is eight months into the program. Yesterday he enjoyed Christmas outside of a prison or jail for the first time since 1991. He got out of prison in 2002 after serving time for murder. But it wasn't long before he was in jail again, for selling drugs.
Shortly after getting out of jail last winter, a friend told him about I Can't We Can.
Joyner now lives in a halfway house, and on weekdays he spends six hours a day in rehabilitation classes.
"We hold a mirror straight up at you and let you see yourself," said Joyner, 29. "It's for anybody who wants to change their life, who's tired of thinking the world owes you something."