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PANAMA CITY, Fla.-Eleven days sober isn't long for a lifelong alcoholic, but Tony White, 52, said repeatedly, "I've been sober for 11 days." That's seven in detox and four more in the Pathways program at Panama City Rescue Mission (PCRM), a homeless shelter in Florida's panhandle that features drug and alcohol rehab. He took a cigarette from behind his ear and studied it, rolling it between his fingers. His brown eyes were clouded and deeply bloodshot as he hung up his apron and stepped outside for a smoke between chores and chapel.
Where White stood near the corner of East 6th Street and Allen Avenue, homeless individuals, members of the general public, and Mission residents all mingled, slumping in the shade and resting their elbows on the dingy, peach-colored stucco walls of the mission. Only four days into Pathways, White had already faced a trial.
"Come here," White recalled a visitor on the street saying as he held up a pint-sized bottle of vodka. "So I had a swig," White shrugged. "OK, more than a swig." He got caught. "Blew hot," he said, referring to the breathalyzer test administered each night at the door. He could have been expelled, but he was "just straight up honest with them." He'd been drinking his whole life-how could he be perfect now? "I've been sober for 11 days," he said. Apparently swigs don't count.
"We are here on the streets," said executive director Billy Fox, an ordained Baptist minister. "We are not on lockdown here." He believes that overly structured rehabilitation inhibits residents' ability to make good decisions on their own. The mission operates on the principle that it's compassionate to allow the exercise of free will, and then to offer correction as a consequence.
The 29 men and 19 women in the PCRM program average a year at Pathways. Each resident carries unique baggage on the road to recovery. "Some only need 10 days," Fox said, "Some need long-term help." The stages, including evaluation, two learning phases, a work internship, and an interim period, are meant to prime students for productive citizenship.
Still, free will can be surprising. At about 9 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, a woman clad only in two towels and carrying a bundle of clothes emerged from the women's residence showers in full view of Fox and WORLD. The residences are supposed to be empty then. She ran into her room, saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," as Fox turned his head and sidestepped out of eyeshot.
The tour continued with a peek into the men's emergency dorm where a guy sleeping on a top bunk flinched at the light and pulled the blanket up toward his face. Fox shut the door and left him alone.
Around lunchtime a reporter from the local newspaper, the Panama City News Herald, called to request an interview about the mission's back-to-school clothes program, Klothes for Kids. On the drive to the Panama City Mall in his convertible Chrysler Sebring, Fox rattled off the facts: Bay County school district tallies over 450 children as homeless; families cannot afford to buy clothes to match the new uniform policy; last year Klothes for Kids provided shoes, socks, underwear, backpacks, jeans, and a personal shopper to 980 children; this year, the goal is to clothe 220 more.
Fox arrived to find volunteer youths hanging jeans and lining up shoes in a former Bath and Body Works store. He gave the newspaper reporter the statistics and nailed the sound bite for the paper's website, eyes locking on the lens and words forming complete sentences. He didn't mention the mission's focus on evangelizing because he wanted to portray Klothes for Kids as a service project. He said later that he tells reporters what they want to hear: "It's what I want them to get a hold of and promote so I can get the community's attention instead of community tension."
Back at the mission, Randy Kukla was manning the front desk where he works about 36 hours a week. In his evaluation period, a team of managers assessed his compatibility with Pathways. When Kukla moved into the mission five days before Christmas 2007, he relied on alcohol to get him through the struggle of separating from his wife. He was even drunk at the mission: "They had known for weeks that I was drinking." But staffers didn't offer correction until he had a seizure and hit his head on the bathroom urinal. The jolt of his body shutting down and the possibility of losing his bunk prompted Kukla to apply to the mission's rehab program.
Melanie Ashley, 55, has passed evaluation and is in Phase 1, which has behavioral change and spiritual growth as its goal. Now she works at the Bargain Center, one of the three thrift stores where the mission sells donated items from the community. "God has shown me His power," she said, "I am powerless without Him over drugs and alcohol." She covered the Harley Davidson tattoo on her right arm with her opposite hand, saying she has had to "change her playground and playmates" after her drinking problem turned into addiction to the prescription drug Xanex. She consumed 60 pills in four days and woke up in the intensive care unit before her daughter brought her to PCRM. Ashley now lives in a ranch-style home at Bethel Village five miles away from the mission's headquarters. The gated home is designed to house single women and their children.
Phase 2 of Pathways prepares students for the workforce by helping them build a resumé. Thirty-seven-year-old Maka Millican gains job experience by working in the recycling program. Fox calls that venture his "one stroke of genius" because it provides a service to the community and helps fund PCRM.
Millican stood with gloved hands in the backyard sorting cardboards, plastics, and aluminum from a heap of blue trash bags. To the left of the sorting, Kukla squeezed in a workout on the rusty gym equipment, which was set up among broken-down lawn mowers and behind a wire fence with a barbed-wire top. To the right of Millican, a two-on-two ball game raised dust near a portable basketball hoop, but she ignored it as she flattened cardboard boxes and dropped them into the corresponding container.
The mission's business enterprises, including the thrift stores and recycling program, cover 30 percent of the mission's operating costs. They also give residents the opportunity to work. Millican's efforts will help net around $25,000 a year for the mission, a yield Fox said is possible because "the labor is so cheap." Millican earns only $15 a week in Phase 2, but she expressed her contentment in having the mission meet all her material needs (except cigarettes). She smiled at the gecko that clung to the side of her white tank top and said she's glad for the chance to love God more than the life she was living.
After graduates complete the first two phases, they can either intern to join the mission staff and continue living in the dorms, or take an outside job and live in the apartments behind Salvation Army. They are to save money and stay accountable to their case managers. Ninety days is the time limit, after which the individual should be self-sufficient.
A year-long commitment to the program may seem endless to Tony White, who struggled with 11 days of sobriety. He pointed over the courtyard and across the bayou to a gray building with closed-up windows. The county jail, he said, was his "second home. They cut all the trees down so you could have a direct view of the next step." Before coming to the mission, White slept on the Panama City streets or in a jail cell of that very building, and he knew the "swig" he had taken put him in danger of returning to the streets.
At 6:45 p.m. White was still contemplating smoking the cigarette between his index finger and thumb, when a voice came over the loudspeaker: "If you're stayin' here, chapel is required." If he were staying he had only 15 minutes to smoke-or he could go out on the streets and smoke when he wanted. This time, he started desperately asking for a light.