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John’s eyes were red and unfocused. He couldn’t stand still but took a few steps into the parking lot, then kicked the railing of the stairs leading to the second floor. “They set me up, man,” he told me. “I swear I’m clean. I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t take nothing. I’m scared even to take aspirin!” The man had just flunked a urine test that showed cocaine in his system.

e was about 40, with a tanned, craggy face and a ponytail, jeans, and a red T-shirt. More importantly, he was scared and furious. He ran into the parking lot again to shout at another man walking down the drive carefully carrying a paper cup of urine for a second test. “Hey, man, you set me up!”

John had already spent 20 weeks here at Casa Raphael, a transitional housing program providing substance-abuse rehabilitation in Vista. The program requires a commitment of 9 to 12 months and can take up to 120 men. But for John, failing his urine test meant immediate expulsion, then 2 more months in jail for violating the terms of his probation. This was his second visit to Casa Raphael, and before coming this time, he’d spent 4 months in jail. “But I’m clean, I swear it. They’re setting me up!”

Even so, he seemed high. His red and bleary eyes, his shaking hands seemed to be evidence of drugs. In California 70,000 people, 75 percent of the state’s total parolees, are sent back to prison each year for parole violations — such as failing a drug test — for an average of five and a half months. They take up 20 percent of the prison beds and cost the state one billion a year. More than half the men at Casa Raphael — clients, they’re called — come from the prison system; either they are paroled directly to Casa Raphael or they are already on probation or they receive what is referred to as a nudge from the judge: the choice between jail and Casa Raphael.

So I thought John would be headed back to jail, but 15 minutes later everything had changed. The parole department test on his urine had turned out negative. He was happy, his hands weren’t shaking, he was walking straight, and even his eyes seemed less red. “I told ’em,” John said cheerfully. “I told them all along.”

A minute later I saw Mark Gregory, intake coordinator and case manager at Casa Raphael. He was nearly as upset as John had been. “I’d hate to exit someone over a fucked-up test. I’d have nightmares about it. And I was that close to it. He really looked like he’d been using.”

Located on a hill above Postal Way in Vista, the buildings of Casa Raphael began life as a motel — a two-story L-shaped arrangement with a parking lot in the center. Down the hill is Casa Base, a grouping of small buildings where men spend the first six weeks. Casa Raphael opened in 1993 and then was totally restructured in 1999. It is part of the Alpha Project in downtown San Diego, which assists homeless men and women throughout the county in a “work-to-recovery program” and runs the Neil Good Day Center on 17th Street and provides over 700 units of affordable housing. Ninety-seven percent of the staff of Alpha Project is made up of recovering addicts and alcoholics, and many began as clients at Casa Raphael.

To be accepted by Casa Raphael, the men have to have a history of addiction and homelessness, be unemployed, and have no source of income, other than unemployment and/or veterans’ benefits. They must be between 18 and 62, have two to three days clean and sober, be able to work, and have no prior convictions for sex offenses or arson. The program is broken into three steps. In the first, men spend six weeks at Casa Base in a rigorous “hawking program”; that is, they get up at 4:00 a.m., and by 5:30 they are out on busy intersections in Vista, Encinitas, Carlsbad, San Marcos, and Escondido selling the North County Times, about 10,000 copies a week. In the afternoon they take journaling and AIDS-awareness workshops and a 25-hour video course entitled Framework for Recovery, created by Gordon Graham and aimed at men and women with a substance-abuse problem. Graham himself had spent 22 years in prison, and the course is high on building self-esteem, a sense of personal responsibility, and, most of all, instilling a sense of hope. The men also have to write a full-page journal entry each evening. They are allowed no visitors in the first six weeks, though they can make phone calls. They are also restricted to the property except for work assignments. At the end of Step I, the men are tested on what they have learned, and if they pass, they move on to Step II, which also entails moving into a room up the hill at Casa Raphael.

In the 14 weeks of Step II the men are assigned either to an outside work project or some work at Casa Raphael — working in the kitchen, doing building and grounds maintenance, or working in security. Casa Raphael has its own construction crew that takes outside jobs, and they have teams that work for the City of San Diego in cutting brush, removing graffiti, and picking up trash. Those men without a high school diploma work for their GED, and all take 12 hours in basic computer training. They can also take extension classes from Palomar College. And they must take a two-week workshop in anger management. At the end of the step is another test.

In Step III the men have an outside job paying at least $8 an hour, which they must have a minimum of 90 days before they can apply for graduation. Thirty percent of their salary goes into a savings account, and they must save $1500 before they can leave. Also during Step III they attend weekly team meetings and self-help counseling meetings. And hundreds of hours are spent doing what they call “giving back,” volunteering for community service and working at Casa. The money earned by the men pays 80 percent of Casa Raphael’s expenses, though it operates on a shoestring and is always in need of money.

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