Life Succeeds Death at Boerum Hill Halfway House
Two super-consumers give back to their communities
My Brooklyn is Tolerant
It looks like other brownstones on the block. The Institute for Community Living (ICL) has restored 415-417 State Street with the care the group lavishes on the building's tenants, who are recovering from mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness. ICL began housing people with disabilities at 50 Nevins Street in 1986 and now serves hundreds throughout Brooklyn.
Even on a cold morning, Gurline Gore (center), the longtime program director, and David Gonzalez (left) and Lenny Weinzweig (right), program graduates, feel warmly about each other. With Gurline's guidance, David and Lenny have mastered such skills as feelings management, conflict resolution, and the "triple trouble" of their prior existence. Each man has an apartment nearby.
My Brooklyn Stands Tall
You can tell by the way they're standing on the stoop that change is in the wind this March day; this house is a stepping stone as well as a way station. A lifelong Brooklynite, David is heading to Albany to work for the Mental Health Empowerment Project, one of the most respected self-help groups in the country.
Despite David's departure, Lenny stands tall. He is a job counselor at Mt. Sinai Hospital's Employment Services. Lenny specializes in Double Trouble, a self-help program for people with mental illness and chemical addiction. Recently, he started the first Double Trouble program in the inpatient psychiatric unit.
My Brooklyn Bares Roots
The program on State Street was named Walit House a few years ago. The plaque on the wall commemorates the deaths of Harriet and Leonard Walit, and Khai Cochran, who were buried in a gas explosion at their nearby homes on July 11, 2000.
Initially, Harriet feared the treatment program might bury her Boerum Hill neighborhood. She joined the board to keep an eye on the ex-mental patients and addicts. In time she became their biggest booster. The house enshrines her desire to rehabilitate the people and buildings on State Street.
As director of the Atlantic Antic, I was among those who honored the memory of the Walit's and Mr. Cochran at the 2000 street festival. Now I'm a job counselor at the Baltic Street Mental Health Board; I share Harriet's passion for social work. And, I share David and Lenny's struggle with mental illness. We are peers who prove daily that mental illness can be a bond rather than bondage.
My Brooklyn is Family and Friends
Who says Brooklyn is motherless? David and Lenny are grateful to Harriet and Gurline, who stuck by them when they had little faith in themselves.
Otherwise, states Lenny, "I would still be spending all my money on the next 40 ounces of beer. I was homeless, eating out of garbage cans. I stank like a racehorse, slept on a park bench. I always tried to flop near drug dealers so I could make my next fix. The only thing I knew how to do was to use drugs."
David recalls "the destruction of my 12-year marriage. I stole from my loved ones for my next hit. Peer pressure played a big role in why we drank and drugged. Peer support plays a bigger role in why we're clean and sober."
David adds, "Lenny attracted me with his passion for recovery. He didn't just talk. He put in the footwork by reaching out to everyone. He was more powerful than a therapist. I said to myself, 'I want what this guy's got.'"
After working at Kings County Hospital, where David was the first peer (ex-patient) counselor on an inpatient unit for the City Health and Hospital Corporation, he became an employment coordinator for New York Works, a program that provides work incentives to mental health consumers.
Lenny remembers, "I didn't want to leave State Street at first. Temptation was all around. I managed to stay strong, to take one day at a time. I got a series of jobs helping clients in several programs run by ICL. Now I'm training others how to get and keep a job."
Lenny cautions, "You can't force a person to do something when they're not ready. As a peer counselor, you have to allow consumers to make their own decisions. They will tell you everything you need to know, they'll trust you, if you listen."
What better place to listen than the Walit House stoop! Lenny and David trust Gurline to carry on the legacy of Harriet, a one-woman welcome wagon. And they trust me to respect the silence that falls among friends when all is said and done.