Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Heading Toward Recovery


As my last column showed, the San Francisco government dismisses addicts from hospitals and returns them to the Tenderloin’s drug-laden open arms. Many San Francisco taxpayers have grown cynical about the streets-hospital-streets routine, with ineffective policing and insufficient 30-day drug/alcohol rehab programs thrown in.

The San Francisco circle game permanently helps almost no one but costs thousands of dollars per day of hospitalization, tens of thousands for a typical insurance-paid rehab program, and millions in grants to politically-connected nonprofits that merely enable drug use.

You can research this yourself by looking at website ads for drug and alcohol addiction programs. One typical ad emphasizes private rooms with queen- or king-sized beds, amenities like indoor basketball courts, a professional recording studio, indoor racquetball, a pool and sauna, etc. A “We Accept Insurance” page shows the logos of Aetna. Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, and on down the alphabet.

And yet, many of the people I interviewed at the Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM) or in San Francisco had been through many 30-day programs, and had each time returned to their addictions. The homelessness debate goes on between those who emphasize societal structures and others who cite personal irresponsibility. Housing prices in San Francisco are high, sure, but many addicts and ex-addicts told me about something more important: during their childhood and teen years the adults around them flipped the scripts of what’s normal.

Instead of remembering the love of a mom and a dad, many recalled sickening abuse: incest, rape, beatings, poisoned pets, near-strangulation, orders to lick the floors, games of “slap the bitch,” and more. Maybe some exaggerate, but if many backgrounds are only half as bad, it’s no wonder that some children grow up feeling worthless, and others kill themselves or attempt suicide.

The United States gained their independence in 1783, two years after British troops surrendered in Yorktown and their band played the music from “The World Turned Upside Down.” The song was a contemporary London hit with lines like these: “If buttercups buzzed after the bee, if boats were on land, churches on sea, if ponies rode men, and if grass ate the corn… then all of the world would be upside down.” Today’s lyrics would be, “If young men and women buzzed after the meth, with compassion ignored so they fell into death, when those who should hug them gave only a frown, then all of their world is now upside down.”

The people best suited to help the addicted emerge right-side-up are people who have themselves been upside down. Derrick Burton, OCRM’s Chief Ministry Officer, communicated well with a hundred recovering addicts and alcoholics at a Friday night Recovery meeting.

Burton started by acknowledging that “I still struggle with resentment, bitterness, and hate.”  He said “the woman who was supposed to take care of me was always hurting me,” and how dispiriting the “constant flow of men in and out” was. When Burton was seven, he liked one of the men, Eddie, whose long green car was frequently parked in front of their house.

Eddie gave him money to go to the store.  When he pleaded with his mom for money to buy a boomerang, she said no but “Eddie got it for me.” Eddie gave him a puppy. The Eddie’s green car no longer came, and Burton’s mom was angry when he asked why.

Burton dropped out of school in the ninth grade, consumed and sold drugs, learned about life in jail, and served in the Marines from 1983 to 1987.

Then came marriage, children in 1989 and 1991—and drinking, gambling, crack cocaine, and six trips to the county jail. Also, stealing from his sister and grandma, a year of sleeping on Long Beach streets, and three prison terms. Burton TK lost everything, including his children.

At one point, given his record, it looked like he’d get a 19-year prison sentence. Burton finally prayed for a deal: “If God gets me out, I’ll serve Him.” Either through God’s unchanging will or humans changing their minds, Burton received and took a plea-bargain of only two years. He started reading the Bible.

In 2008, Burton took a OCRM job as a janitor. Five promotions later, with experience as a case manager, he became Chief Ministry Officer. He’s been married again for fourteen years and could sing along with his enthusiastic audience a Christian message: “open the grave, I’m coming out, I’m going to live.”