BALTIMORE (WJZ)– Roberta Williams was near tears as she walked, for the first time, into her new apartment in the Old York neighborhood of North Baltimore.
She grew up poor in the West Baltimore neighborhoods of Sandtown and Poppleton.
She said that she was using heroin by 15, and selling it soon after to support her habit. She’s now 46, she’s spent most of her life addicted, arrested, or jailed.
“In all, I did 3 years in Jessup,” she said.
She’s told her story in 1 of the 22 brand new 1- and 2-bedroom apartments in Independence Place, a massive, stone, former Catholic school that closed in 1972.
“I have worked three years for this,” Williams said.
Buying and renovating the old Blessed Scarament School cost Marian House more than $6 million. Roberta’s story is typical. She lengthens a phrase you hear a lot with addicts who are in the process of banishing drugs from their lives: “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, of being sick and tired!” Three years ago, she walked into the ER at Mercy Hospital to begin her journey and see if she could get into Marian House.
“I’ve quit before, but it was always for someone else… my parole officer, the judge, or my family… this time I was ready to do it for me, and that’s why it’s working.”
Marian House, broadly speaking, has three steps: Clean up, Smarten up, and Step up. The women start out in the former convent next door. Phase one gets them comfortable being free of drugs or alcohol, gets them to accept responsibility for their own decisions, and they begin the counselling that goes with such a drastic life change.
The second step involves moving to the former rectory where they buy their own food, learn to plan and prepare meals, budget, and look for a job. By the time they get to where Roberta is.
Step three, the women are ready to live on her own, stay sober, participate in counselling, and use the money from their jobs on the outside to save, budget, pay for their clothes, utilities, and other living expenses. Because they’re coming from nothing, and because their backgrounds of addiction and incarceration, it usually means they are employed in low wage jobs. Because they don’t earn much they qualify for Section 8 housing. Government vouchers allow Independence Place to provide such long term housing.
“After a few years in a Marian Homes apartment, the women will have built up savings and, if they choose, can move out and find a place on the open market… but they’ll always be a part of Marian House community. They are always welcome here,” said Marian House Board Chair Tere Geckle.
Marian House is supported by the Sisters of Mercy and the School Sisters of Notre Dame Atlantic-Midwest Province and grew out of their work inside Maryland prisons.
“The women would serve their time, but they had no where to go, no support, no real hope of success,” Geckle said.
It became clear to the Sisters that the women needed not only a program but a place to learn how to “…break the cycle”. This year across 10 buildings they have been able to help 270 women and children.
Bouyed by their success, the Marian House Board is launching a new campaign to raise an additional $1.5 million to renovate the adjacent convent and rectory.
As WJZ was there Thursday morning, a dozen prospective donors were touring the new facility. They were being shown how their money will help the next generation of women who need this lifesaving stop as a part of their journey to be a blessing rather than a burden on society.
Roberta looked around her empty, but soon to be filled apartment, thinking what it will be like when her three kids and three grand kids come to visit. She smiles and says she, for the first time in her life, she finally has a place of her own, in her name, that she is responsible for.