There was at least one time when struggling addict Mario Duron says the system screwed him. “I had been through drug court. I had been sober for eight months. My probation officer visited my house and found these little plastic Corona bottles which were only used for decoration. Still, they said that was a violation and they took me back to jail. I just decided to go on the run, I thought they weren’t trying to help me.”
Make no mistake. Duron, 36 of Vista, says there were plenty of times when he was the bad guy.
“When I was young we moved from the country to the city,” says Duron about growing up in Escondido. “That’s where I first encountered gang life. I started getting harassed. It was hard to fit in. I had to make friends just to survive.” He says he started smoking marijuana in elementary school. “I don’t care what anybody says, pot is absolutely a gateway drug. I started skipping school in sixth grade. By 7th or 8th grade I got off the rails. That’s when my drug addiction took a curve and I started doing meth. I started slipping through the cracks. When I stole my mom’s car I ended up in juvenile hall.”
He ended up in both the Donovan and Chino correctional facilities for felony charges including evading police in a high-speed chase and possession of a loaded firearm. “Every time I was released I ended up going on the run. The whole time I didn’t think I had a problem. When my dad died I started using heroin...For a while I was cooking meth in Tijuana. I really don’t know how I ended up being alive.”
He finally hit desperation at 33. “I was willing to try anything and everything.” A probation officer who understood his readiness to change steered him into the Alpha Project, a non-profit that helps people with drug addiction and homelessness.
Duron says it was the system that ultimately helped pull him out of his drug swamp, thanks to his court-supervised stay with the Alpha Project’s live-in Vista facility called Casa Raphael. “They start you in a group of 12. They told us that statistics show that only one of 12 actually make it. Out of that first group, three of us became productive members of society. I guess you could say we broke the mold.”
After ten months in Casa Raphael, Vista’s Flying Pig restaurant took a chance on Duron.
“I was hired in January of last year. The chef knew my background. He started me as a dishwasher. I went to prepping and pantry fry, to the grill, and then to saute. Now I’m the senior cook.” Duron is grateful to the Flying Pig. “That was my first paycheck job. Last year I got my first apartment.” He is now leaving for a full-time maintenance job with the Alpha Project. “My end goal is to become a drug and alcohol counselor. I want to help other people going through what I went through.”
Treating the addicted and the homeless has become a burgeoning industry as local governments increasingly turn to Alpha Project and other groups for help. At least one outspoken leader in the effort to fight addiction/homelessness often makes it clear that his path to wellness is superior to others. Chris Megison, founder and CEO of Solutions for Change, spoke at an Oceanside City Council meeting in October imploring the council to actually turn down its share of a one-time grant of $18.8-million because it accepted a so-called “housing first” concept of immediately providing shelter to needy people. The council did not agree with Megison and voted to accept the HEAP (Homeless Emergency Aid Program) funds.
Megison champions a tough love approach to homelessness and frequently rails against anything close to “hand-outs” or housing first approach. “I was strongly cautioning how the state now mandates only one methodology, requiring housing first,” he said of his city council appearance. “If you can use [state grant money] only one way it can be a nightmare for Oceanside or any other community.”
He says he is proud that Solutions for Change “said no” to federal and state money. At a public meeting on homelessness in Oceanside on August 10 he told a group that 60 percent of Solutions for Change funding comes from its own “enterprise” income from its hydroponic farms. He says the other 40 percent comes from private donations. When asked about the fact that Solutions for Change has clients that use federally-funded vouchers, Megison said that that voucher income is not put into the main Soluitions For Change operating fund and is instead used for maintenance and “operations of an apartment complex.”
Megison met recently with Tim Yzaguirre, executive director of Oceanside’s Bread of Life about the possibility of merging Solutions For Change efforts with Bread of Life at Bread Of Life's Oceanside campus. The two agreed not to combine but Megison did contact Bread of Life’s landlord. One person connected with the city of Oceanside said that contact may have triggered the Bread of Life’s significant rent increase from $10,000 to $16,000 a month. Yzaguirre did not want to talk about specific numbers but he said Bread Of Life was in fact hit with a 40 percent increase in its rent, and that traditional rent increases had always been in the three to five per cent range.
If Bread of Life gets elbowed out of its longtime campus, Yzaguirre says he is happy to accept it. “We are a Christian-based organization. If God wants us at this location, no one can change that. If I’m supposed to be here, I’ll be here.”
Bread Of Life is run with an unpaid staff of over 100 volunteers. The payroll for the Solutions For Change staff is over $1-million a year. Megison says the two groups should not be compared.
“There are three different types of intervention," explains Megison. "Bread Of Life is an outreach that provides food to homeless people. They are a relief effort. Solutions For Change is also about recovery and restoration. They don’t do any of that.”
Bread OF Life’s Yzaguirre disagrees. “We also do restoration. The whole point of a church is restoration. That’s why we are opening the Life Skills Academy in September that will give people skills with finances, job readiness, nutrition and health.”
Recovered abuser-turned-cook Duron does not agree with Megison. “I think every person deals with getting clean differently. The same program that worked for me may not work for the next person. It’s like making a meal. There is really no one right way to make a dish.”