COSTA MESA : Charlie Street 'Last Stop' for Alcoholics

On May 17, 1987, Gene Ackley was carried by friends from a sea of wine bottles in a Gardena motel room to the safe harbor of a Costa Mesa white clapboard house.

There--with the help of fellow alcoholics at Charlie Street, a free 10-day program run entirely by volunteers--he came off a three-week blackout bender into the beginning of a new life.

Five years later, the one-story structure that has housed 15 men at a time has been razed and Ackley is involved in the construction of a two-story facility that will hold 25 people.

For Ackley, now a Charlie Street board member, it is a way to give back what was given to him.

Standing at the construction site, tears flowed as he remembered the day his life changed.

"My feet were lacerated, and I could barely walk," he said. "I was sitting in the shower with the water beating over me, and I looked down to see bloody infected wine sores on one arm and a Rolex on the other. That's where I turned around, right in that shower at Charlie Street."

Ackley, 59, is one of about 10,000 men who have in the past 33 years gone through the shelter.

"This is the last stop for a lot of people," said Mike Burns, chairman of the 15-member board of directors. "They get here by word of mouth or by the cops, after they've burned out all relationships, friends and insurance companies."

Unlike hospital programs, Charlie Street does not have a medical staff or dispense medication. Instead, the men are supervised by a rotating staff of recovering alcoholic volunteers and encouraged to participate in daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Each man is allowed three 10-day stays in his lifetime. If house rules are broken, the man is kicked out.

Burns said Charlie Street, which is funded by United Way, private donations and the city of Costa Mesa, is one of only two remaining shelters in Orange County that will take indigent alcoholic men who are still drinking.

"We're not like the multitude of other places that operate under the premise of being so-called nonprofit," he said. "We are just a bunch of people with good motives who are giving people a sober place, fresh clothes, full bellies and help finding a job."

Unlike most who have been through Charlie Street, Ackley was not indigent at the time he entered the house.

In fact, after living three years in a refrigerator crate, he had in 1972 managed to stop drinking for periods of time and eventually built a lucrative contracting business and achieved the trimmings of a house with a pool and that Rolex watch. But despite the outward trappings of success, he was never able to remain sober.

"Some people come in here from homes where they're no longer welcome and some crawl in out of the weeds," Ackley said. "The conditions under which we get here are vastly different, but we all share the same experience inside--agony."

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