Finding Brotherhood at Joseph House

11 May 2011, Posted by admin in Packages,Stories, No Comments.

Finding Brotherhood at Joseph House

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He arrived here in Cincinnati, aboard a bus at the Greyhound Bus Station on the edge of downtown about 2 p.m. on July 11, 2010, fresh from Dayton, two weeks clean and sober, with about $30 in his pocket and just the clothes on his back.

Victor Graham, who is 33, hadn’t been doing much in recent years except getting high and drinking, homeless but living with others who would take him in. He arrived at the bus station on Gilbert Avenue and exited through Gate 12. He stood in the bus station one day back in September and pointed to the gate number, recalling that day months earlier.

“I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he said back then, almost two months after he arrived here. “I hadn’t been doing anything but getting high and drinking. I’d get up in the morning and started off getting high smoking weed.”

He recalled spending about five hours just sitting at the Greyhound station, until it started to get dark. Then he began walking west along the sidewalk. The street was free of pedestrians at that hour on that side of downtown, where commerce is thin, unsure of where he was heading.

“The whole time I was walking I was kind of scared,” he recalled.

Graham got as far as the Hamilton County Courthouse, several blocks and about a 15-minute walk away. He stopped. In the dead of night he noticed the people who occupied doorways and benches on the west side of the Courthouse, facing Main Street. He came to realize they weren’t there just momentarily – they were there for the night. They were living there, at least for that night. Graham found an empty bench – a wooded, slatted bench – and stretched out. He fell asleep.

The next morning he found his way to Fountain Square, where he bought a cup of coffee, and eventually found his way another several blocks to the Drop Inn Center (DIC) at 12th and Elm streets. He told them he was homeless. They took him in, assigned him a bed and told him about the DIC rules.

Graham stayed at the DIC from July 12 to July 21. He’d get up in the morning, brush his teeth, get ready and head downtown to look for a job. He didn’t panhandle. And he didn’t find a job. “I was doing a lot of praying,” he recalls. Then one day a woman appeared at the DIC and asked if anyone there was a military veteran.

Graham raised his hand.


The woman, whom Graham recalled as being from the Department of Veterans Affairs, was at the DIC to let veterans know about an organization called the Joseph House, a downtown series of shelters and services , based in Over-the-Rhine, that serves  up to 100 homeless veterans a year , an oasis of regularity that has been serving homeless vets since 1993.

The home where Graham was living back in September is just one of eight venues the Joseph House runs downtown – four of them for housing – for down-on-their-luck veterans. Those who reside at the shelters arise each morning to a regimen of chores, meetings, classes , meals and group therapy sessions.

Calvin Wooten, 53, is associate director of Joseph House. He came to the agency as a maintenance worker in 1997, a “recovering person,” who served in the U.S. Navy aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Beirut, Lebanon in the early 1980s. He returned to school and became a certified counselor.

“I’m a recovering person first, and I’m an associate director second,” says Wooten, who grew up in the West End. “I’ve watched it go from five beds to 105 beds, from one building to eight buildings, four staff to 17 staff members. It’s been an awesome journey. This is a special place.”

At first, in the mid-1990s, the Joseph House served just a handful of homeless Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The numbers grew. Since 1999, when the Joseph House was certified as a treatment facility, they have served close to 1,000 military veterans. As of this past August, they had 103 beds occupied out of the 105 total in four buildings. They have an annual budget of more than $1 million, with about 70 percent of the funding supplied by the Department of Veterans Affairs  and U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Additional funding comes from grants, fund-raising and the veteran residents themselves if they an income.

The demographics? About 60 to 65 percent of those served are African American; 35 percent are white. About 70 percent are from Cincinnati, 25 percent are from the general area, the Tristate; five percent are from out of state. Many are in their late 40s, early 50s. Those between ages 45 to 55 would probably represent about two-thirds of those served, says William T. Malone, Joseph House executive director.

“It takes a while to get worn down,” Malone adds about the middle-aged population.


It was a warm August day as John Burton sat in the courtyard of the Joseph House’s Captain Robert S. Marx Veterans Recovery Center on Republic Street and recalled those dizzying days of his past decade, days filled with crack-cocaine and alcohol, and at least three separate stays at the Joseph House. There were years and months of staying clean and sober, followed by relapses.

“I was helpless,” Burton, 47, recalled. “I had never been so empty in my life.”

Residents in T-shirts and shorts sat nearby in the courtyard, where a maturing oak tree grows, and played dominoes under a patio umbrella. Another resident was busy grilling a slab of ribs on a large outdoor grill. Burton had just moved here from Springfield, Ohio, in 2001, homeless and staying at the DIC, at 12th and Elm streets, when Calvin Wooten walked in one day and asked him if he were a veteran. Yes, said Burton. “Come with me,” said Wooten.

Burton served in the Army in the early 1980s at Ft. Lewis in Washington state. When he arrived at the Joseph House two decades later, he remained sober for two years, then relapsed. He returned to this refuge two years later in 2004. Relapsed again. “I just wasn’t serious about wanting to quit using drugs,” Burton recalled. “I ate out of trash cans. I begged for money. I was a bum, a derelict.”

But he returned, yet again, in 2008. And relapsed again. Then last June, he was on his way with another addict to get more drugs when he decided to again try the other path.

“I turned right when he turned left near Washington Park,” said Burton. “I had lost my pride, my dignity, my self-respect. I lost all my friends. My faith in God was lost. I tried to pray – let me get sober one more time before I died.”

Now he follows the same routine as other residents. Some of the routine is personalized. Burton awakes and prays, goes to breakfast. Morning meetings follow, then therapy, classes, more meetings and activities. Once a month, some residents do volunteer work at Our Daily Bread soup kitchen in Over-the-Rhine. There are chores to do around the properties.

“I’m trying to take care of the wreckage of the past,” Burton sighs.

Robert is 51 years old. He asks his last name not be used. He, too, sat in the courtyard with empty coffee cans serving as ashtrays sitting on the picnic tables. He has graying hair slicked back, tattoos adorning his arms. He wears a sleeveless T-shirt.  He’d been shooting heroin since he was 12. He’d lived on the streets in Chicago since he was 9. He has spent 24 years of his adult life prison. He had left a Florida prison just 15 months earlier. He had lived in foster homes. He spent three years in the Navy, was honorably discharged, although he says he thinks they were “glad to get rid of me.” He finally found himself in Cincinnati, homeless, and first came to Joseph house in August 2009, learning about it from others who lived on the streets.

“The word on the streets is that if you’re a veteran and homeless, and if you want to change your life, come to the Joseph House,” he says.

Robert stayed at Joseph House for just four months, leaving in December 2009, thinking “I’ve never asked for nothing – I want to do it my way.” His way finally meant “back to the streets and using heroin.” Then he sought help from the VA; he was assigned to a methadone program. He thought to himself: “I don’t want to die.”

A friend at the Joseph House talked to him about coming back. “He told me, ‘The war’s over, come back,’” said Robert. “I was sick of my life. There’s got to be a better life.  I just want peace inside.”

It was Aug. 7, 2010 when Robert recalled those days.

“I’ve been here four days,” he says that Aug. 7 morning. “I will never go back – to heroin or the streets.”

A tall wooden privacy fence encloses the south side of the courtyard. It has a gate. Rex, a Joseph House resident, calls it “Recovery Wall.” Just behind it is a thin alley that leads out to Vine Street, and beyond that the pale orange brick of St. Francis Seraph Church, with its twin steeple and clock tower, rises above the surrounding buildings. Homeless people will sleep in this alley, in the weedy lots of nearby abandoned buildings.

“This wooden fence is between that and your sanity,” says Rex. He points across Vine to a man, dressed in raggedy clothes, sitting on a set of steps.

“That could be me,” he says. “God gave me another chance. I’m not a handout anymore. They gave me another chance.”


Just a handful of female military veterans have gone through the Joseph House. About a half-dozen. And while the few that came through did well in recovery, says William T. Malone, there are separate Veterans Affairs programs for them. “There’s a feeling in the substance abuse recovery community that males and females can’t be mixed in a (common) recovery environment,” says Malone.

A military veteran doesn’t have to be homeless to seek help from the Joseph House. And a homeless veteran doesn’t have to be a substance abuser to seek help from them, either, although, as William Malone points out, probably more than 90 percent are. And it also doesn’t matter what kind of military discharge they have, explains Calvin Wooten.

“We’re not a jail, you’ve got to want to get help,” adds Malone.

Joseph House, of course, has rules for its residents. They need to stay sober. Avoid fights. Attend to chores and meetings. Pull their own weight. But if they fail, if they relapse, there is still a second chance. The staff believes that makes Joseph House different, unique in the Tristate. John Burton relapsed three times and was welcome back.

“It’s not unusual to have someone come back through,” says Wooten. “Addiction is so vicious, cunning and so deadly that it just takes time to get a handle. It’s not unusual to have someone relapse. It happens. That’s one of the things we’re founded on – we don’t leave our wounded behind. We are a forgiving agency.”

Almost as significant is that they don’t put a time limit on getting sober.

“We don’t put a clock on anything,” says Malone. “We don’t have a time frame. Just like when you get diagnosed with diabetes, the doctor doesn’t tell you you’ve got 90 days to solve this problem. Alcoholism is a disease, a lifelong battle. So we don’t expect a guy to get necessarily cured in 21 days. A guy can stay here as long as he needs, as long as he complies with the rules and makes progress. You need time.”

And that treatment philosophy gains even more traction in light of a study released recently by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. On Feb. 10, HUD reported in its supplemental report to Congress, called Veteran Homelessness, that more than 75,000 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2009, that 57 percent of them were staying in a shelter or transitional housing program, and that an incredible (this reporter’s words) 43 percent were living on the street, or in places (the report’s words) “not meant for human habitation.”

HUD reported in that in a one-year estimate between Oct. 1, 2008 and Sept. 30, 2009, more than 136,000 veterans spent at least one night in a shelter, which means about one out of every 168 veterans in the country.

More to the point, HUD concluded, military veterans are overrepresented among the homeless. Vets make up eight percent of the population, yet account for 16 percent of the homeless population on any given night. But on a positive note, HUD notes, homeless veterans comprise a small percentage of the total veteran population – less than one percent of veterans total were homeless in 2009.

“The low rates of homelessness among veterans may reflect the relatively good economic circumstances of most veterans,” the HUD report notes.

But, HUD also demurs in the same report: “However, once veterans become impoverished, they are more likely to descend further into homelessness. In 2009, just under 10 percent of veterans in poverty spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program. This is roughly double the rate of homelessness for all adults in poverty, which was 5.5 percent in 2009.”

Two months before the HUD report was released, Malone knew that homeless veterans were overrepresented among the homeless. A difference, he pointed out, was that veterans embody a kind of camaraderie not found among the general population of the homeless.

“There’s a common ground here,” says Malone. “What they bring is self-discipline and teamwork and camaraderie. Looking out for each other and tolerating each other. We have very few beefs among the residents. They learned when they were young how to get along.”


It was last June 5 that John Burton took the right turn near Washington Park., and eventually made his way back to the Joseph House. He had last used drugs the day before. When he finally walked through the door at the Landing Zone, as the Marx Veterans Recovery Center is called, he saw one of the counselors, fell into his arms in a hug as tears welled in his eyes.

He speaks well of the staff. He calls Wooten “the man of second chances. He’s strict, but he’s one of the most loving people I ever met. I never feel alone here. When I was on the streets I was always alone. They’re teaching us how to live again.”

While he is estranged from a 22-year-old son, he is re-building a relationship with a five-year-old daughter. “God gave me a second chance with my daughter,” he says. “Spirituality is a big part of my recovery. Sponsorship is a big part of my recovery. And Joseph House teaches us it’s never too late.”

William T. Malone, 62, a West Side native, joined the board of trustees of the Joseph House in 1997. He retired from the Navy in 1994, and was living in the Boston area when he took a job at a place called the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. He worked at job training, not just with homeless vets, but unemployed veterans as well. He moved back to Cincinnati in 1996, and then joined the board a year later.

“I wondered where all the homeless veterans were at night because this was such a small operation, about a dozen guys here,” says Malone, who is not a recovering substance abuser.

There are disappointments, says Malone. “The disease is so powerful, the guys’ best intentions are to fight it and win,” he says. “But some end up with the disease getting back inside of them. It’s an indication of the power of the disease. We measure our efforts by how many guys are able to make 90 consecutive days.”

According to a Joseph House annual report, for the fiscal year that ended last June, 95 homeless veterans entered the program during the fiscal year. Of them, 75 percent stayed clean and sober for 90 or more consecutive days. During the year they discharged seven residents who had been there for about four years. Forty-three had been there an average 13 months, and another 20 averaged five months. Twenty-four left before completing 90 days.

Malone reflects.

“When I retired from the navy I thought my best days were behind me,” he says. “I figured I would never reach that job satisfaction, but then I got involved with this. These guys are homeless, but not helpless. And if I was ever in a hard place I’d want one of these guys standing next to me. Or in the same foxhole with me.”

Calvin Wooten is given to reflection as well.

“This has been a life-fulfilling experience,” he says. “I’ve been part of the restructuring, helping turn   this place into something out of nothing. If I don’t accomplish anything else in life, this has given me everything I need to fulfill me for the rest of my life.  It’s been an awesome journey. This is a special place.”


Cincinnati was a change of scenery for Victor Graham, 33, who spent a couple of years in the mid-1990s with the Army National Guard. And Cincinnati was where a dream of his was located – to one day attend the University of Cincinnati. But more than anything, he says, “I was going to change for the better.”

His week-and-a-half at the DIC “seemed like a lifetime.” But when he was finally driven over to the Joseph House on July 21, 2010, he was introduced to Calvin Wooten.

“I knew things were getting better,” he says.

It hasn’t been easy. It’s an intense recovery program that lasts most of the day. “It keeps you mind focused,” says Graham. “It’s all about recovering.”

He shares a room with two others, has a bed and a locker at Joseph House. He keeps Bible on a stand. A miniature American flag hangs from a curtain rod in his room. He has a bag of Pringles handy as a snack by his bed.

“This is like being at home,” he says, standing in his room. “This is a serious chance, a process of starting your life over. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. This place has been a blessing for me.  They treat you like adults here. It’s like a brotherhood.” ©


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