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Street Sober : Alcoholics Anonymous Takes Its Cause to Where the Homeless Call Home

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As dusk falls and fog wraps halos around the street lamps, the curtain goes up on the theater of the street.

A school bus disgorges two dozen Christian evangelists, who sing hymns and proselytize the homeless emerging from the shadows of Civic Center buildings. Two of the churchmen lash together a wooden, seven-foot-high cross and prop it on the grass.

The worker bees who populate the headquarters buildings of Orange County government and Santa Ana City Hall scurry homeward, their places taken by squads of janitors.

Enter Floyd, stage left.

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Floyd is homeless and alcoholic. He pushes an aluminum walker in front of him as he slowly hobbles along--the legacy of two broken hips.

A 58-year-old man who says that once he starts drinking “I’m off to the races,” Floyd has shuffled from the bench he calls home, two long blocks away, to the meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in a most unusual setting--outdoors.

For the past half year, ex-alcoholics--most of whom are also former homeless people--have been running outdoor AA meetings every Monday night in the Civic Center. For the past two months, there have also been Sunday afternoon meetings at Pioneer Park in Garden Grove.

The meetings are the work of Street People in Need, a private, nonprofit group organized in 1987 from parishioners at Our Lady Queen of Angels church in Newport Beach to feed the homeless.

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SPIN officials persuaded the owner of Sirius House, an Anaheim residence for recovering alcoholics, to start the AA street meetings.

The setting is far different from a church basement or a rescue mission office, typical sites for AA meetings. But then, “these people wouldn’t come to a church basement,” said Samuel W.H. Boyce, the Newport Beach advertising executive who started SPIN.

Floyd certainly wouldn’t make it there.

Floyd says he took his last drink “a couple of weeks ago, maybe a little longer,” and started going to the AA meetings around the same time. One night, “I was just walking by and I didn’t even know there was a meeting going on until everyone says, ‘That’s an AA meeting.’ ”

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Floyd freely admits to being an alcoholic. A New Jersey native who is vague on dates and lengths of time, he says he was in the Navy for a while and in the Marines for a stretch, getting discharged from the air station at El Toro “in ’66 or ’67, somewhere in there.”

He worked briefly in a Costa Mesa factory after his discharge, though he can’t remember what the factory produced. He lost the job “because I was drinking there too. I was bringing booze in my thermos bottle.”

After that, “I was always getting busted for (being) drunk in public,” he says. During one of his stays behind bars, his wife made good on her threat to leave him. He figures that happened sometime in the late 1960s.

He hasn’t worked in about 20 years, he guesses, and spends part of his $663 monthly disability payments to stay in a motel when he can. The disability payments, like the broken hips, are the legacy of being hit by a car while crossing a Santa Ana street, an accident that Floyd says kept him in a hospital for nearly a year, followed by a long stint in a convalescent home.

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Often, as happened last month, he starts drinking in his motel room only to find upon awakening that someone who had been there sharing the bottle has made off with his money. Then it’s back to the streets until the next check comes.

It’s men like Thomas who are trying to help men like Floyd.

Until six months ago, Thomas (AA members request that their last names not be used) lived on these streets. Some nights were spent beneath railroad overpasses, others in whatever shelter might have room.

He’s 32 years old and says he was homeless almost continually from the time the Navy gave him a bad-conduct discharge about six years ago for selling drugs until he got into Sirius House.

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Addicted to alcohol and drugs, clean since May, Thomas was headed back to jail for violating probation after being convicted of felonious assault and drug sales. Boyce and SPIN stepped in, agreeing to a judge’s suggestion that they take charge of him and try to straighten him out.

Boyce “saw something in me,” Thomas says. He “told me about these services. I didn’t pay any attention the first couple of times . . . (but) there finally came a time when I could face five years in prison or straighten my life out.”

Then too, “my girlfriend died in May, from the drugs. And that kind of got my attention, too. It was a dead-end street.”

As he gets ready to speak, Thomas says he remembers most of his listeners from the days he was living on the streets.

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“I’m just as glad to see them as they are to see me,” he says. “I see them and it reminds me of where I came from and what I don’t want to return to. They see me and they see the hope” they can get better. “All it takes is a willingness. There’s no magic formula to it.”

Thomas is one of 25 people who have entered recovery homes through these street gatherings since June, according to Boyce.

If a homeless alcoholic tells one of the AA members at the meeting that he wants to get sober, he gets taken to a detoxification center for a stay of about a week. SPIN then pays for the alcoholic’s room and board in a recovery home for up to a month or until he finds a job.

Tim Shaw, who directs SPIN’s substance abuse rehabilitation program, said the organization is just about ready to help recovery home residents who have been sober for eight or nine months to move into apartments of their own.

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As it does with homeless families, SPIN would extend no-interest loans to help the ex-alcoholics pay the several months’ rent and security deposit usually needed to rent an apartment.

“That’s our long-term goal for these people,” Shaw said. The meetings, detoxification, recovery house and apartment rental are the opposite of a “type of program that’s a quick, ‘three hots and a cot’ kind of thing. It’s a real long-term, meeting-the-problem-at-its-source kind of thing.”

Michael Dear, a USC geography professor who has studied the homeless, said he was unaware of any other AA street meetings. He said surveys across the country, including one he conducted last year on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, found that about one-third of the homeless have problems with alcohol.

Don, who runs some of the meetings--beginning with the traditional “My name is Don and I’m an alcoholic” and the response from the crowd, “Hi, Don"--tells of earning $70,000 in 1984 and $7,000 in 1988. Alcoholic and an occasional drug user, he lost his wife and stepson, his job and his house before discovering AA.

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The meeting is like most others, except for the setting. Several people, including Thomas, “share” their tales of misery and degradation before becoming sober. Two dozen or so homeless people stand nearby or sit on hard, wooden benches to listen to the stories, sip the coffee provided by SPIN, puff on cigarettes doled out one at a time by Don.

Occasionally, interlopers make a beeline for the coffee and the doughnuts. Quietly, Don or another member firmly pulls them aside, explains it’s an AA meeting and not a food giveaway, and invites them to stay and listen.

Mike Neely, founder of the Homeless Outreach Program on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, said that holding AA meetings on the street where the homeless congregate is “a very workable kind of thing.”

“The most important thing is the message, and not necessarily the locations,” said Neely, who is an ex-alcoholic and ex-drug addict. “And for homeless people it’s very important for things to be accessible.

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Support groups are the buzzwords of the ‘90s,” Neely said, “and the thing that upper middle-class and middle-class people have the advantage of is getting to these support groups.” But the down-and-outers have the hardest times finding such groups, Neely said, and when there is a program like SPIN’s, “I applaud that kind of effort.”

Neely said a group known as the Drifters has been conducting AA meetings on Skid Row for nearly 20 years, though their sessions are held indoors, currently at the 6th Street offices of Neely’s organization.

Bill, who organizes the Drifters’ meetings, said 40 to 50 people normally attend, and the majority are homeless. Not all are AA members, he said. Many “come primarily for the coffee and the cigarettes at this time of year.”

Floyd could identify with those people. Although he says he’s an alcoholic and has been attending these meetings for a while, he’s not taking part in the program AA preaches. He doesn’t stand up and proclaim, “I’m an alcoholic,” he doesn’t take his turn reading from the AA-published book by the light of a portable lantern.

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He listens quietly to the speeches at the Santa Ana AA street meeting, takes a doughnut or two, some coffee and a cigarette if he gets there before they’re all gone, then drifts on up the street to wait for a later event: the weekly feeding of the homeless by a church group.


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