Home Free: One woman’s vision to resolve drug addiction in Sandtown

Sandtown-Winchester Baltimore.

It is a 72-block neighborhood home to 8,500 people in a city that has the highest concentration of heroin addicts in the country, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, “What you really need to know about Baltimore from a reporter who’s lived there for over 30 years.”

It is here that Leslie Bradley-Poff opened Home Free, an intensive outpatient substance abuse program that provides counseling resources to the underserved in Baltimore.

The 18-month old location on Presstman Street near the northern boundary of Sandtown serves about 15 clients a day, Bradley-Poff said.

“We feel like there’s a lot of power in the group,” Bradley-Poff said, sitting in her office on the second floor of a building owned by New Song Community Church. “It’s not about one person telling another person what to do. It’s about a whole group rallying around people.

“In group you have you and I sharing from our individual experiences which might be helpful to each other, but we also have the people supporting us. So if I come in and I’ve relapsed I have my group rallying around me and problem solving with me or calling me on my bad behavior, which is much more powerful than having a drug and alcohol counselor saying you shouldn’t be doing that.”

Bradley-Poff said the services are free to clients who have insurance and if they don’t have insurance, the staff at Home Free are able to help possible clients fill out the application. In Maryland, mental health services and substance abuse are under one umbrella in terms of treatment.

There are many factors lending to the high rates of substance abuse in the community she serves. One of the greatest challenges Bradley-Poff’s clients face is lack of employment.

“Unemployment and the fact that felons aren’t given jobs works against a lot of people,” Bradley-Poff said. “A lot of our clients are here because they sold drugs.”

She pointed to the street below us. “You see these guys out on our corner? It’s just everywhere in Baltimore.”

When the industries began pulling out of Baltimore’s districts, it left residents with little options for work, especially in light of the city’s poor public transportation in impoverished neighborhoods.

“Lots of people in Baltimore sell drugs to support their families,” Bradley-Poff said. “We have people who are really, really well qualified for employment and their background check comes back and it’s checkered so they don’t get the job or they lose the job they’ve already been hired for.”

Bradley-Poff sees many reasons why people deal drugs.

“I had a client say he was out there selling drugs because he didn’t want his mother selling her body, which is often how women make money to support their habit, so he was selling drugs in order to buy drugs for his mother,” she said.

And there are people who deal and get caught up in using.

“I have one client who was able to not use anything for three years while he still packaged up a bag of heroin to sell it and he would get $100 for that,” Bradley-Poff said. “And for three years he was able to do that but now he can’t do it anymore. He can’t stop using it while he’s packaging it up. But financially it’s a big problem for him. He can’t do anything else.”

Bradley-Poff, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, said she wanted to start the center after her experiences working in Baltimore emergency rooms.

“I realized how prevalent addiction is in Baltimore and how many of our problems hearken back to the fact that we have such a substance abuse problem,” she said. Another inspiration was a book her son gave her that asked how you want your business to be remembered at your funeral.

She wanted people to say, “She found something that worked for substance abuse,” and that’s when she said, “That’s what I really need to be doing.”

Despite the dismal statistics that surround Sandtown, Bradley-Poff is inspired in her work.

“I find it incredibly rewarding to provide treatment for people who want it,” she said. “When you have people who really want it and they’re broken and you can say, ‘I have something that can help you,’ it’s really rewarding.”

Earl King III, 45, is a client at Home Free and has found value in the program. He said he began sniffing heroin when he was 12 years old. Sitting in Bradly-Poff’s office recently, he was 13 days sober, having quit cold turkey.

Attending group therapy is a condition of his probation and King has faithfully attended every day the center is open.

“When I first came here I took a lot of notes because I was curious to know what everyone had to say and after writing down most of the things I really looked at, like for instance: we take a lot of pride in ourselves when we’re getting high but we don’t take that same pride when we’re not getting high. So we have to learn to do that because we look down on ourselves,” he said.

King has spent 26 years of his life in prison and wants to earn his high school diploma and go to college to better care for himself and his two daughters. First, though, he’s learning principles at Home Free that he’s applying to his daily life.

“This program is helping us shape and mold all that in a way that we can use it to benefit our every day life style in a positive note,” he said. “It’s a negative thing when you’re constantly looking at yourself in a shameful manner because of what you’ve done to yourself and your community. … But we be going through stuff, we don’t know what to do.”

At Home Free, he’s learning what to do.

“Programs like this help you learn what you’re doing wrong and how to do it right and if you make a mistake how to get back up and keep going,” he said. “That’s important too for this community and each member.”

Bradley-Poff said the longterm goals of Home Free include connecting with resources to provide housing and employment.

“There are a lot of people we have to turn down or people who don’t do well here because they don’t have stable housing ,” she said. “I’d like to have more housing connections.”

In addition, Bradley-Poff said she wants to see programs running all times of the day and to use their current building to its maximum.

“I’d like to see people who have done well come back and speak encouragement to people who are here and struggling,” she said. “I’d like to be able to hire people who have gone through our program.”

Bradley-Poff said she defines success for clients at Home Free as someone who is free from the addiction they were struggling with and who are happy and healthy.

“They’re employed with something they enjoy,” she said, pausing. “They’re not incarcerated.”

{Watch Bradley-Poff define the success of Home Free}

For more information about Home Free, visit their website.

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