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tim rowland 2/25/01

March 05, 2001

W House: As good works go, it's quite a bargain



Tim Rowland


Estimating on the high side, it costs about $8,000 to bring an addicted woman through a nine- to 12-month stint in the W House, a smallish red brick halfway house on Antietam Street in Hagerstown.

If the woman is not helped, she may be in serious danger of becoming pregnant and delivering an addicted baby who will cost the county $250,000 a year to care for. Then come the tens of thousands of dollars in foster home care, not to mention the likely behavioral problems, special education costs and, all too predictably, jail time.

Without help, the woman herself will likely end up back on the streets involved in the criminal world and then back into the prison system at the price of $20,000 to $30,000 a year.

And what of the children she already has? Through absolutely no fault of their own, the will likely be treated to a world of abuse and neglect. If they are lucky, costly education programs will try to restore them to the mainstream - their chances of success greatly outweighed by the chances that they will themselves become addicted and bust into a few residences, or rob a bank or mug a passerby before being caught and processed through the expensive judicial system and shipped off to the barred, $30,000-a-year taxpayer hotel.

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And of course these wrecked lives, these societal footnotes lumped into some dust-gathering uniform crime report, will produce no taxes of their own, offer little real emotional comfort to others and will be noticed in the community, if at all, by porch-sitting city residents grumbling about crime or the prostitutes on Church Street or gangs of rude kids.

For those interested only in the bottom line, this is it. The W House has a capacity of nine women. Two thirds of the women treated there will succeed, a fantastic record in the addictions world.

In even the most conservative terms, the $48,000 spent on six successful women in a year will save the county's taxpayers millions. This easily makes the W House one of the most cost-effective social agencies in the county.

In any given month, however, there are 10 to 14 women who want to get into the W House, but can't for lack of space. With some luck and some money, most of these women will get a chance by the end of next year, when the W House hopes to double its capacity at a larger location on North Locust Street.

The project, in relation to potential rewards, is small. W House Executive Director Christy Trenton said the agency is trying to raise $150,000 from the community as part of matching funds for the $1 million project. It's about a third of the way to its goal.

Having explained the costs, Christy Trenton the bean-counting administrator becomes Christy Trenton the caring social worker, gently reminding us that "this is not even about money."

Obviously not. Pretend for a moment that the W House never saved county taxpayers a dime. Wouldn't $8,000 still be an unspeakably tiny price to save a woman's life and dignity and productivity and happiness? Not to say anything for the lives and happiness of her children.

Women come to the W House shaken and alone - just released from jail, just out of a 30-day treatment program or occasionally from a Department of Social Services referral.

Ninety percent have been abused as children. Some have been raped or had turned to prostitution to pay for their drug habits.

"It's amazing to sit here and listen to the stories of what these woman have been through," Trenton said. "Ties have been severed with their families, they were out on the street, maybe breaking the law - they have lost their jobs and their homes. They have a lot of wreckage in their past when they get here."

When drugs and alcohol scalded away a person's humanity, leaving exposed little but feelings of anger, worthlessness and shame, the W House begins to rebuild. Through AA/NA meetings, jobs, simple household chores and counseling, the woman- the dependable worker, the loving mom and the caring human being - begins to reappear.

Most of all, they learn to cope with life's bumps without chemical help.

"When they get here they are angry, resentful, disoriented and have no idea of where they're going. When they leave they are calmer and much more self-assured. Some are happy - not all, but some. And most of them have goals."

Through house rules and gentle but firm discipline, they perform household chores and get jobs. They're taught independence. They get a little help managing their finances, so when they leave they have a month's rent and money for some furniture and a few dishes.

Many get apartments within a few blocks of the W House when they leave. If the woman feels troubled, professional help is a beeper-number away.

Addiction is the first domino to fall in a chain of social problems. And it's the first that must be set aright if the remainder of these problems are to be solved.

"Treatment works," Trenton said. "Not for everybody, not all the time, not for everyone who comes through this house, but for many it does work."

Trenton, who admittedly has far more lust for helping people directly than for fund-raising, says it's difficult to raise money for the W House. "It's easier to give to the touchy-feely causes," she said.

True. Giving the neglected child of an addicted mom a toy for Christmas may precipitate a few moments of smiles and joy. But wouldn't it be better to give him back his mom?

Contributions to the W House's new building fund may be sent to 37 E. Antietam St., Hagerstown, Md., 21740.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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