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Mobtown Beat

Something to Crow About

Christopher Place Graduates Have a Party Before Getting to Work

By Michael Corbin | Posted 1/31/2001

This is big, special, because we all don't get together on the weekend like this," Frank says early in the afternoon of Jan. 28, just before Christopher Place Employment Academy's Super Bowl party kicks off. "We're pumped about the Ravens and we're here to have a celebration. And next Sunday . . ." He pauses for emphasis. "Next Sunday is going to be sweet too. We've got limousines lined up to take us to dinner afterward."

After a six-month stay at Christopher Place, Frank and the rest of Class No. 9 are about to graduate from the Baltimore Catholic Charities-run academy. They will have up to two years more of support--help staying away from the drug and alcohol habits that have plagued them in the past; help keeping new jobs; help reconciling with friends, family, and community. Six months ago the 26 men of Class 9 walked into the building on East Eager Street and walked away from a different kind of Baltimore life.

"My life was just unmanageable," says James, another client. (Christopher Place officials requested that the last names of its program participants be withheld to protect their privacy.) "I have done time in state prison and I was addicted to heroin." James, like the men who preceded him here, was variously homeless, incarcerated, and addicted. "This is a voluntary program, no other program like it," he says. "We all came here because we needed to turn our lives around and we needed help."

Class 9 will graduate Feb. 4, and with Ravens fever running high among the members a Super Bowl party seemed a fitting early celebration. And perhaps nowhere is Baltimore's victory sweeter than 709 E. Eager St. Here, amid the used institutional furniture, folding banquet tables, and humming fluorescent lights of Christopher Place's TV room, there is a palpable sense of the pleasure of being fans, and of the chance for these men, who have been each other's primary source of support for six months, to celebrate together. Here is a chance to share in the civic energy, cut loose with some testosterone- and adrenaline-fueled braggadocio about hometown Giant killers. Here is the sports-bar normalcy of intense tube watching, the call-and-response chatter of running commentary and analysis, the explosion out of the seats at every big hit, bad call, and breakaway run. This is something these men haven't had in a long time.

"I think I've only seen two Super Bowls in my life where I wasn't intoxicated," reflects soon-to-be-graduate Larry. "I am glad to celebrate with these men. We really came together. . . . We came together as brothers."

In the media event known as the Super Bowl, the spectacle of Mobtown fandom itself became news for local and national reporters. In the shorthand cultural analysis of the journalist, the Ravens' smash-mouth play and off-the-field exploits became easy stand-ins for the realities of Baltimore life. Sister Gwynette Proctor, Christopher Place's director, suffers lightly such analyses if it means she gets to discuss the realities she faces. "My number-one problem is finding affordable housing," she says. "The men here are required to save 80 percent of their wages so that by the time they leave they have $3,000 to $4,000 saved. But the average apartment [in the city] is $500 a month." She goes on with her list: "More treatment options, relapse for these men is a real problem . . ."

For the most part, though, Proctor is beaming today with the energy of a party host whose guests are really enjoying themselves. "This is a real special time. Brian Billick and some of the Ravens came to visit the men in November," she says, entering a quieter room just off the TV lounge. "They came to give the men encouragement."

Christopher Place opened in 1984, literally in the shadow of the antique spires of the Maryland Penitentiary off Fallsway, as the city's first drop-in day shelter for men. ("Women and children get the majority of the social services available," Proctor explains. "Men often fall through the cracks.") After 17 years of steadily expanding its services, Christopher Place bills itself as an "employment academy," but its scope is much broader than making formerly homeless and addicted men job-ready.

"There are no other programs like this in Baltimore City," Proctor says. "We provide holistic service. Not just drug and alcohol treatment, not just employment, not just housing. We do all of that, and we even work on relationships and family life. These men haven't had the relationships they need. I get five, six letters a day from men in the jail asking about getting into our program." She routinely receives more than 200 applications for the 34 spaces in each new class. Funding for the 5-year-old program, which Proctor says costs about $10,000 per student, comes from foundations and private donors as well as Catholic Charities.

Back in the TV lounge, the energy rolls around the room. It's only the second quarter and the sodas are gone. There is no cable; the big-screen set relies on rabbit ears to keep the picture from jagging too much. A few of the men confer on how to keep the hinged doors to the TV cabinet from swinging shut and blocking the view. Scotch tape is settled upon as the solution.

Each Christopher Place graduating class selects a valedictorian. This year, the man chosen is, among other things, a New York Giants fan, and he is ribbed mercilessly as the Ravens grind toward halftime with a 10-0 lead. "That's all right, you wait," he retorts, giving as good as he gets. During the break, the man (who asked that his name not be used) talks a bit about his class' priorities.

"You know, it doesn't really matter who wins this," he says, pointing to the TV set. "We're together. Tomorrow I will go to my job. Sunday is the ceremony." Asked for a preview of his valedictory speech, he smiles. "I'm just going to give thanks to the staff and my brothers here."

As the two-minute warning approaches, Frank tells the story of how he managed to arrange for the stretch limos that will take the graduates to dinner after the ceremony. "This will be real nice," he grins.

As the Ravens march toward their 34-7 win, the men share in the celebration. Frank holds out two tickets to the graduation ceremony for a visitor. "You make sure you come to that," he says, pointing to the tickets. "It would be real nice if you could come to that."

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