Say you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, as probably half of homeless people are. Who would you want in charge of the place you go for a meal, a bed, and maybe real help?
Would you want to be somewhere run by a person with an advanced degree — maybe an MSW, a master of social work — but no experiential knowledge of what you’re going through? Or would you pay more attention to what a former addict or alcoholic has to say?
I’ve written before about former substance abusers who taught me a lot during the 1990s: Bob Cote in Denver, Freddie Garcia in San Antonio, and many others. They’re all dead, but I recently ran across an article on Lou Ortenzio, who runs the Clarksburg (West Virginia) Mission. Then I emailed him. Like Bob and Freddie, he knows from hard experience the need to break out.
Ortenzio was a friendly family doctor in Clarksburg in the 1980s and 1990s — so friendly that when people lost their pain pills, or the pills purportedly fell down the sink, Ortenzio would prescribe more. Then he started prescribing them for himself, more and more. Then came fake prescriptions and all kinds of lies. He says, “I take responsibility: I got addicted to the stuff, and I didn’t have any judgment.”
How would you answer this question: “Who was more guilty, the patients who became addicted, the doctor who over-prescribed, or the drug companies that said opioids like Oxycontin are not addictive?” The correct answer is: yes. They all believed lies and lied further because they wanted to believe.
Convicted in 2006, Ortenzio avoided jail time but gained a lengthy probation, lost his medical license, and earned what he could by delivering pizza to homes where he used to make house calls. He also realized his sin and misery, reached for hope, and found it, becoming a Christian. He eventually went to work at the Christian shelter and treatment center.
So why would an addict or alcoholic be well served to stop at the Clarksburg Mission? I’m eyeing a government-oriented website that announces, “The West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness (WVCEH) serves as the West Virginia Balance of State (WV BoS) Continuum of Care (CoC) lead agency.” The website says “The WV BoS CoC is committed to developing a coordinated emergency response” and has had “collective-visioning sessions for CoC lead staff.“
Ortenzio emailed me: “We have little to do with the WV Coalition to End Homelessness…which is the COC. We do talk with them.” Ortenzio’s vision is different: “To anyone suffering the pain of addiction, I want to offer three simple words I know are true: There is hope.” The clarksburgmission.org website declares, “When we say ‘Jesus Saves,’ we mean that He touches every aspect of someone’s life. Our goal is for lives to be restored through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”
That works. I’ve seen it work for 33 years among homeless people and 46+ years for me. Ortenzio says, “Change begins with truth and grace…. Recovery requires community….We tell people we love them until they are able to love themselves. We hold them accountable and walk with them through struggles.”
Today, two days before Pentecost Sunday, is a good time to remember what works. The Holy Spirit is the shy member of the Trinity — hardly as prominent in the Bible as God the Father and Jesus the Son — so this annual commemoration of the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t get much attention. But it’s crucial.
The ancient world’s most important historian, Luke, tells the story in chapter two of the Acts of the Apostles, all of whom were together on that seventh Sunday when “suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” That’s what still happens to individuals, including some among the homeless: a mighty rushing wind fills a whole body, and lives change.
That’s the beginning. Methodology to build on the rushing wind is important. Ortenzio says, “The more we expect of our residents, the better they do. We insist that people wake up on time, complete chores, show up for meetings and do what they say they’ll do. The more they accomplish, the better they feel about themselves [as they build] new neural pathways that help heal the impairments caused by drug use.”
I’ve heard testimonies about a process like that in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Antonio, and other cities. It works — but it all starts with the rushing wind.