City's drug violence erases a man's struggle for sobriety

THE BALTIMORE SUN

STEVEN Matthews -- brother, father, friend, welder, carpenter, music teacher, fully armed percussionist, songwriter and struggling alcoholic -- seemed finally to be on the verge of a breakthrough. He was making peace with himself and others, feeling useful again, hopeful of landing a job and getting a place of his own.

"I have put you through hell for 36 years, and I'm not going to do that anymore," Matthews promised his sister on Christmas Eve. "I feel so blessed. I have people who love me."

"Today I was a really helpful, useful, peaceful person," he wrote his girlfriend on Christmas Day, after preparing a large dinner for fellow residents of a recovery house in Charles Village. "To get outside of myself, to help others and be useful, sober and comforting to another is so special and fulfilling. It fills me up inside like nothing else can."

On Jan. 1, Matthews wrote: "I feel bright and positive for the new year."

A friend named Jim Younger had lunch with Matthews on Jan. 6 and came away convinced that he was going to get sober.

"I could just feel it," Younger says. "There was a twinkle in his eye again, and that smile. And he had a job interview lined up for that Monday."

That Monday when Steve Matthews died.

Victim of homicide.

Victim of Baltimore's noxious drug trade.

Right place, wrong time.

Matthews was where he needed to be -- in one of Baltimore's many group homes for recovering addicts and alcoholics -- but at the exact moment one of Baltimore's many armed drug dealers decided to invade it.

On Jan. 10, someone shot Matthews in the head while he was seated in a chair in his otherwise peaceful refuge, a rowhouse on 27th Street in Remington. He was one of three who died, the others also being men in recovery.

Police arrested one man in the triple killings and are looking for two others. They believe the killer was looking for money owed for a few ounces of marijuana by one of the victims. The debtor was not Matthews, police told his sister, Elizabeth Jones, of Roanoke, Va.

Apparently, Matthews was shot because he witnessed the crime.

Because he was there.

How Steven Matthews ended up there -- in one of hundreds of group homes in the city -- is really the story of thousands of alcoholics and drug users, the ones who struggle quietly for years with their addictions. They dip in and out of recovery, in and out of depression. They go to meetings -- Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous -- and count on those groups for support when their families and friends have had enough of them. They sometimes function in a relatively normal way -- holding jobs, paying rent -- and other times fall down hard and end up homeless.

Matthews was homeless, at least for a little while. He also did some time in jail after getting caught trying to buy heroin. His friend, Younger, remembers when a city paramedic crew saved him from death by overdose.

Matthews took prescribed medication for depression, another for back pain.

But his main drug of choice was alcohol.

Apparently, he was sufficiently self-aware to get himself into a detoxification program or a recovery setting when he felt himself slipping. He had friends -- and a big sister -- who stuck with him.

"We made a pact a while ago," Elizabeth Jones said on her cell phone, which was her primary link to her younger brother. "I said, 'Steven, I'll never give up on you. I'm not a shrink who says time's up. But I gotta see something coming from you.'"

It was an ordeal, starting between four and five years ago, when more than a decade of sobriety ended for Steven Matthews.

Born in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1968, the son of a college professor and a symphony violinist, Matthews was the youngest of four children. The family moved to Virginia in the late 1970s. The alcoholism first emerged when Matthews was barely out of high school in Richmond. But after getting excellent in-patient treatment, he had a successful recovery, then entered Virginia Commonwealth University to develop his musical talents.

He became a first-class percussionist, fully armed with congas, bongos, marimba and vibes, and performed with an array of bands producing an array of sound, from Latin soul to calypso to baroque. He married a social worker. They had a baby girl together 10 years ago, and moved to Baltimore. They lived in a suburban neighborhood and Matthews took a job as a music teacher in the Baltimore public schools.

No one is sure what happened to trigger his slide back into alcoholism. It happened as Matthews and his wife separated, about four years ago.

"He was intuitive enough to know that it was not healthy to live with his wife and daughter while he relapsed," his sister said.

"He was a sensitive guy -- perhaps too sensitive," says his friend Younger. "And some of the things he saw in the schools stressed him, too. I think he found music education rewarding but the behavior of some of the students, the parents not caring ... it really bothered him."

Jones believes her brother deserved more help with his problems than he received. Once he lost his job and benefits, most of the best treatment was beyond his reach financially, she says, and that's the case for thousands of substance abusers here. "My brother lived in a house with a bunch of guys who wanted a better life for themselves," she says. "They wanted us to feel proud of them, and they wanted to become better people."

No one can be sure, but Steve Matthews appeared to be ready to recover and move on. That's the shame of it -- this violent nullification of a man's struggle to break through an addiction and live again with song and deeds for others.

"In those moments of clarity," he was able to write two weeks before his death, "the whole universe seems to open up ... and I'm overwhelmed with the innate knowledge that love is supreme. ... I've been spared and granted happiness through the years, and can often now go to sleep with some greater sense of purpose."

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