December 31, 2004
On New Year’s Eve I drove down Baker Street, long the hub of commerce and family activity in east Bakersfield until the money and development in town moved west, and the area began a long decline that ruined numerous businesses and exploded several years ago with arsons that consumed some of the surviving enterprises and a couple of flophouses where some residents died of smoke inhalation. Now the nearby park people loitered in day and night, drinking and taking drugs, has been bulldozed, and efforts to revitalize the area are underway. This will continue to be a difficult task, as building continues apace to the west, and plans are moving fast to develop thousands of new homes further east, where there are hills in this otherwise flat and parched community in the Central Valley of California.
. Just off Baker Street, a couple of blocks down 21st, stand several buildings that comprise the Bakersfield Rescue Mission, provider of food and shelter for the homeless, the addicted, the paroled, and downtrodden. Those with the most critical needs can, without explaining their personal history, be admitted to the Homeless Intervention Services facility. For more advanced treatment, there is the Discipleship Residential Program, administrated and housed in separate buildings on campus. I parked at the appointed address and walked in to be greeted by a man and a woman. He was freshly-shaved, his mustache neatly trimmed, and he looked businesslike in a tie and jacket. She glistened in fresh makeup and a stylish blouse and coat.
“I’m a little early,” I said. “Can you tell the disciples I’m here for the interview?”
“That’s us. I’m William, and this is Alice.”
“Oh – you’re certainly in fine shape.”
“We weren’t when we arrived,” he said.
They escorted me into a small room next to the chapel and dining facility, where other disciples were starting to gather. I sat facing William and Alice.
“What drugs did you use?” I asked.
“Heroin,” William replied.
“Methamphetamine,” said Alice.
“I began shooting heroin in the 70’s for about four years before going back in the 80’s for three years,” he said. “I’d cleaned up using various programs, including methadone. During the 90’s I used at least seven years. The people at my county office never detected I was using but I was late all the time and often had to rush out early to make connections. My life at home hadn’t been healthy, either. My ex-wife was a pharmacist, and she stole pharmaceuticals and used and sold them.”
“Is she still doing that?” I asked.
“No, she’s cleaned up and is very religious.”
“Do you have any children?”
“I have a 17-year old daughter.”
“You see her often?”
“I’m really not allowed to have any contact.”
“What happened at work?”
“I lost my job and was homeless about four years.”
“What was it like living on the streets?”
“Everything is day to day. The first thing you have to do is take care of your physical need. Drug addiction supersedes everything, and you never know what’s in store. I was involved in at least 10 or 12 armed robberies, and I burglarized houses, stole from stores, forged checks, panhandled, whatever. I was using as much as $200 of heroin a day and figured it would be easier to get that by selling. I’d buy a quarter-piece – that’s a quarter ounce, six or seven grams – for $195 to $350, and I’d break it into dime bags, eight to eleven per gram, and sell several hundred dollars worth and keep the rest for personal use.
“When you’re ‘Holding the Bag For Sale’, people will cater to you – until you run out. In exchange for lodging, you give them heroin at night and in the morning so they don’t have to go out and do the things you do. But people get lazy and start stealing your drugs, or their friends do. This arrangement never lasts longer than two to seven days.
“So I was often back on the streets and committing crimes, which I couldn’t stomach. I never got caught for armed robbery or burglary, but did some time in county jail for petty theft, bad checks, and boosting stores.”
“What’s boosting?” I said.
“It’s taking items from stores for resale.”
“What’s the longest you were in jail?”
“I was in jail six months, but went to prison 16 months for sales and possession.”
“You’ve been clean since your last incarceration?”
“No. The day I was released – December 15, 2003 – I didn’t contact my parole officer. I went on the run and straight to a connection, and I was back doing armed robberies and burglaries. I knew I had to quit or I’d get ‘Struck Out’ and 25 to life, or worse.”
“What did you do?”
“I came to the Rescue Mission. I’d been here before but hadn’t been able to stay clean long. This time, though, they saw I was committed to changing my life, and not just because the alternative was a parole violation and going back to prison. But you can’t enter the Discipleship Program when you’re on drugs. I’d used 30 minutes before I returned. So at first I had to stay in the Homeless Intervention Services facility here.”
“Withdrawal from heroin is pretty tough, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I couldn’t sleep and was nervous and had diarrhea all the time.”
“You made it cold turkey?”
“Not completely. I had to go out a couple of times for a little heroin to get a little taste to stabilize me while my body adjusted. In a couple of weeks I tested clean and was ready for the program.”
While heroin is the diabolical downer, methamphetamine is the unrelenting upper, and Alice was thus at the opposite end of the spectrum of intoxication.
“I was on drugs for 13 years and sold them the last eight. I was always doing runs, picking up chemicals and supplies, transporting meth to Arizona and Las Vegas, all over.”
“And you made enough to stay off the streets?”
“Yes, I could always pay the rent, and buy food and clothes for my three kids. And I maintained hygiene. But I was using all the time and never came down. I learned how to eat and sleep on it. At the time, that felt normal. A lot of people thought I wasn’t on drugs. But my oldest son knew why I was leaving and returning all the time. He had to take care of my two youngest kids.
“I began to pray I’d get in trouble to force me into recovery. I’d lost 30 pounds and was really scrawny. When I was busted last year I was 35 years old, but I thought I was 37. That’s what I told the police. I was sentenced to a year in jail and a year in this program. I was only in jail four months until I got early release because of the Fed Cap Kick.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“That’s when there’s overcrowding and they release the least dangerous inmates.”
“Then you came here.”
“I went back on drugs a couple of times first. Then I came here and that’s been a blessing. They’re teaching me how to walk with God. They keep me in the bible. Last year I couldn’t spend Christmas with my children.”
She stopped talking a moment and tried to stifle tears.
“This year I got to spend 72 hours with them.”
In addition to daily prayer, bible studies, and Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, the recovery program is founded on work therapy. The disciples, who usually haven’t been able to maintain regular jobs, are required to put in daily shifts as cooks and dishwashers, workers in the maintenance and housekeeping departments, salespeople and stockers in the thrift store, mechanics, or as receptionists. William has 10 months in the program and will graduate in February. As a senior disciple, he is allowed to sleep in a room with only three others. Most of the other 66 disciples currently in the men’s program sleep 10 or more in each of several rooms dispersed in a building that long ago was a hotel. William has also earned more responsibility and works for the administration, overseeing the program office, instructing new disciples, and taking people to doctors and other appointments. Alice works in an office, using various computer programs. The women’s housing facility looks like a small college dormitory; two to four disciples share each room.
“When I graduate in March, I’d like to work with elderly people in a convalescent home,” she said.
“What about you, William?”
“At first, I’m planning to stay here as a grad student. I want to make sure to avoid triggers.”
“Things that set you off, old memories, old failures, the wrong people, places, and things. That’s why when I’m finished here I’d like to move away to a new place, maybe somewhere in the mountains, like Reno.”
“I’m going to stay in Bakersfield. I’ll be bringing my two youngest kids from Ridgecrest to live with me. The oldest is doing well in high school there, so he can stay as long as he continues to get good grades.”
“What’s going on at the party tonight?” I asked.
“They used to have dancing but that led to fraternization between the men and women, and we’re not allowed to fraternize, on or off this campus, during our year in the program,” said William. “Tonight, everyone will be in our chapel and expected to give testimony and pray.”
“I don’t know what it’s like to party sober,” Alice said. “I’m going to find out tonight.”