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Mobtown Beat

Can Do

Grass-Roots Recovery Program Finds Strength in Numbers

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 6/12/2002

Israel Cason is shouting. "If you want something you never had, you're going to have to do something you've never done!" he tells this gathering of I Can't We Can, the nonprofit substance-abuse-recovery program he founded in 1997. About 150 addicts--or "deviants," as Cason calls them--fill rows of chairs in a vast hall at the Paradise of Park Heights meeting hall on this May afternoon. They are going to have to make a life change, he says, and it starts with attending three of these meetings every day.

Since its inception, I Can't We Can has garnered a reputation in recovery circles for its roughrider approach to breaking the addiction cycle--something to which 250 alumni of the one-year program could attest, and 280 current clients are getting a taste of now. Like the young man at this meeting, fresh out of prison, who shamelessly confesses to leading a very nonmonogamous sex life.

"Don't come in here advertising--telling us, 'I don't want to be a freak but I can't help myself'!" Cason roars, with all the volume available to a man who stands 6-foot-3 and wears a size-13 shoe. "Relationships are the number-one killer in the recovery process. . . . Satan is the author of distractions. God put you here to develop a soul."

In 1997, a year after shaking a 30-year heroin habit, the then-45-year-old Cason set out to give addicts something he'd discovered was crucial to recovery: a spiritual foundation. He knew from experience that faith was not a cornerstone of overtaxed city programs or private rehab centers. He also knew he didn't want to have to go begging from, or be beholden to, the state and federal agencies that dole out drug-rehab funds. "In order for the government to give you money," he says, "they have to be your god."

Through court referrals and word of mouth, the program has mushroomed from six people in one recovery house to 280 people, most of them living in transitional residences run by I Can't We Can. For all that, it is an organization that could use more organizing as it grows and gains prominence for its successes.

In addition to the program's 250 or so graduates, Cason says thousands more have received some form of aid, from clothes to meals to trips to the emergency room. Bills get paid "out of pocket," he says. I Can't We Can accepts very little public funding (Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, the city's designated substance-abuse treatment and prevention authority, pays for five I Can't We Can beds). Ask Cason to outline his sources of income and expenses, and he shrugs his shoulders in response. The organization operates off the cuff, he says. Program members with skills ranging from carpentry to cosmetology put them to use, fixing up recovery houses or providing needed services in the surrounding community. Those with jobs pay what they can toward rent and groceries; those who qualify get welfare benefits and use them to help cover household expenses.

"When people come to us, we make sure they get what they need. We find a way," Cason says. He pointedly invokes the service governments are often criticized for not providing to recovering addicts: "That's treatment on demand."

I Can't We Can has no formal operating budget, no tracking systems or computerized database to monitor clients, few paid staff (about 10 people), and no grant writers to help it tap private-foundation funds. Cason says he is addressing all these gaps with the help of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, an urban-affairs philanthropy.

"Israel is an impressive guy who's done a tremendous amount in the last few years and touched a lot of lives," says Baltimore City health commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson. Still, Beilenson says, he'd prefer it if the program was better monitored by the government. He refers to guidelines that govern state-certified treatment facilities on issues ranging from number of residents per square foot to installation of smoke detectors. Certified nonprofits are eligible for a piece of the $7 million in state funding the city will get for drug treatment this year.

Beilenson says he understands why I Can't We Can doesn't seek public money. There are "certain faith-based things they don't want to have scrutinized" by outside agencies, he says.

I Can't We Can could benefit from some "retooling" that can only come with growth, says Dr. Robert Schwartz, head of the the Open Society Institute's local drug-addiction program. But even without such retooling, he says, I Can't We Can is "filling a niche--providing clean and sober housing for people in need, and creating a rich recovery network of people, a fellowship or brotherhood of people who can provide help to one another."

That philosophy has helped sustain I Can't We Can and distinguish it from programs run by Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems. It wasn't just the promise of a bed or a meal that brought 26-year-old Hassan Allen Giordano to I Can't We Can last October. It was a fear of dying or, perhaps worse, of a life behind bars.

As a teenager, Giordano used his natural gift for hustling to rise through the ranks of a drug ring, becoming a "lieutenant" with a penchant for Bacardi 151 and a territory along The Block, where he'd clear $5,000 to $10,000 a week. He did one stint in jail on drug charges at 23 and soon after getting out found himself facing another, with the promise of hard time. That's when a judge gave him one last shot: "She sent me here," he says.

Now Giordano clears maybe $500 a week, working 12-hour days overseeing the Paradise hall and a nearby snoball stand. He says living clean takes lots of discipline and a willingness to better structure your life.

"I never liked people telling me what to do, and at first I had a hard time understanding Israel," he says. "I was always a businessman, but Israel said to keep God first, don't be in a hurry. Slow down, it's about giving back to the community."

Giordano, like dozens of others who have gone through the I Can't We Can program, consider Cason to be "a spiritual father," someone who not only helps them recover but helps them evolve as humans. Ask Cason to summarize his impact, and the big man with the booming voice gets quiet and still.

"It's definitely not me," he says. "I know what I did for 30 years, so I can't get it twisted. I just know that [in treatment] what you speak to is not the person, you talk to the soul--and the soul is always trying to get to paradise. One man plants, another waters, so I'm just a vessel: I can't, we can."

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