Living in the House of Joseph

The gritty reality of a men’s recovery facility in the town of Olivehurst

Craig Anderson offers Nick Romano a puff of his cigarette.

Craig Anderson offers Nick Romano a puff of his cigarette.

Photo By Max Whittaker

At the House of Joseph, the atmosphere is beginning to break down. The men at this small, church-based, men’s recovery home on the outskirts of Marysville are losing patience with each other, squabbling about details, about housework and money, about unfairness in their responsibilities.

Living in the house is a struggle in many ways.

Wednesday nights are usually for church, but it’s come time for Aquil Hafiyz, the director, to gather everyone in Freedom Hall and lay down a bit of the law, affirm some of the basic rules.

Hafiyz has spent the afternoon roaming the grounds, supervising the landscaping that’s going on in the front and side yards. He’s younger than a lot of the guys, but still he resembles an older brother around the house, his orders direct and firm, the tone low-key. His black T-shirt bears the lyrics of James Brown: “Stay on the scene like a sex machine.”

These past couple of months, the crew has kept things positive, worked well together. There’s been a solid group running the car washes, heading out diligently after breakfast each day with a shopping cart loaded with buckets and soap and rags, hawking washes for donations through the warm afternoon. The men—about a dozen total, ranging from their mid-20s to late middle age—had already tilled up the yard’s packed-dirt turf and seeded a new lawn, and today they planted a sapling, installed some decorative cinderblocks, and gathered up the clutter in the side yard.

House Director Aquil Hafiyz, right, lectures his residents during an evening Bible study in Freedom Hall.

Photo By Max Whittaker

The house is a former rest home, with an extra-wide hallway and side entryway and a wheelchair ramp leading up to the front deck. It shows the effects of age and neglect, and so it blends into the landscape of Olivehurst, a chronically downtrodden suburb on the south edge of Marysville. But on this day the place is a little tidier, and the progress has infused the air with a sense of pride and boosted the cooperative spirit.

But those dark spots of disunity are lingering, and they’ll only fester if left unaddressed. So Hafiyz sends word around, and soon everyone is filtering into the place they call Freedom Hall, a former living room soaked in musty, old-house scent and doused in green-tinted light from aging skylights.

The guys slide into the two old church pews that line a table, open their Bibles to Ephesians and begin reading in turns, like they normally do. And as he often does, Hafiyz soon interjects with a comment, adding perspective to the verses. But this time, he doesn’t stop talking for about a half-hour.

“The reason we’re having this meeting tonight is because we’ve got to get certain things back on track,” he begins, in the snappy, down-beat rhythm that he always applies to weighty matters. “We’re a family in this house. We are men, and we should treat one another like men! This is our community, and everybody has to learn how to help each other out—we’re in too-close quarters with each other!”

He brings up incidents from days before, and Bible characters and Bible verses, his rhythm steady and lively, like that of an impassioned pulpit orator. Soon it seems he’s produced the desired effect, and he begins to wind down. The guys have begun responding, joking and laughing together, and Craig Anderson, a clean-cut, middle-aged man who arrived depressed and homeless from Sacramento two months ago, stands and offers an apology for losing his cool the previous day. There’s hugging, and the guys rib each other a little and laugh some more. At least for now, Hafiyz has held things together.

He lingers outside afterward, in the evening sun shining on the walkway. He’s keeping track of the comings and goings; several guys are walking around the corner and down the street, heading for their drug and alcohol recovery group meetings. Technically, this is a breech of house rules. The program requires a “blackout” period for a resident’s first 30 days, a time of confinement to the house and back yard, a time for thinking things over—for tilling the soil, as Hafiyz puts it, for the planting of a new seed.

House residents Craig Anderson, left, and Steve Farris, right, help Nick Romano back to the House of Joseph as he begins to overdose on prescription painkillers.

Photo By Max Whittaker

There should be veteran residents or staff members escorting the guys when they leave the grounds, but Hafiyz is the house’s only staff member, and he can enforce only so many rules. So he overlooks many of them, all the while making sure the guys know that the rules still exist and why they exist: It’s the surroundings, the neighborhood, it’s because the House of Joseph sits in the middle of Olivehurst, just off the main strip. It’s because most of the guys come from around here, a place that’s saturated with the very things they’re trying to push away.

For a while now, the community of Olivehurst has begun serving as contrast for an upper-middle-class invasion showing up on the fringe of town. A few blocks south, vast tracts are being graded for new houses. A brand-new apartment complex sits separated from the aging, single-story homes across the street by a 10-foot wall, awaiting its share of Sacramento workers who will commute 90 minutes each day for the lower cost of living.

But here, at Olivehurst and Sixth avenues, neighborhood denizens forever crisscross town, some on foot, some on rickety bicycles, some in run-down jalopies looking as aged and faded as the buildings. People are conducting drug deals, discreet transactions that aren’t too hard to spot from the front yard of the House of Joseph. Here in the middle of town, storefronts still sit empty and boarded, although some say Olivehurst Avenue is looking up these days.

It’s a place that Nick Romano has haunted for years, alternately nursing and fighting a heroin addiction that has gripped him for most of his adult life. Romano is in his early 50s, but his soft, somewhat hesitant demeanor makes him seem younger. He’s not small, at about five-ten, but his build is slight, and his gaze has a fragile quality, youthful and weathered at the same time.

He reminds Hafiyz about his medication, but Hafiyz demurs, tells him to attend his recovery meeting first; he can take it afterward. Hafiyz has been holding the medication, an addiction-treating pill, since Romano overdosed a week ago, having finally downed too many after suffering through the first few days of heroin withdrawal. It was an incident that stuck in Hafiyz’s mind, one he brought up again during this evening’s lecture. It’s always unsettling when a resident suffers a setback, but there was something else that morning, a comment that was made, and it struck a nerve in Hafiyz.

It was mid-morning, well after Bible study, after the residents had done their morning chores. The usual handful of guys had stolen around the corner for a cigarette, breaking the house rule against tobacco, another rule that escapes enforcement these days. Romano had shuffled along with them, in his flip-flops and cut-off shorts.

House of Joseph residents gather to help tidy up the front yard. House rules place the yard off-limits to new residents, shielding them from the lure of the neighborhood.

Photo By Max Whittaker

As he walked, rolling a cigarette, his movements began to slow, and before long, he’d stopped moving altogether. His eyes had widened and his gaze had receded into a hollow distance when fellow residents Craig and Steve caught him, propped him up, called his name a few times. They waited a minute or two, then stood him up, one on each arm, and began a slow retreat back to the House of Joseph.

They lowered him into a wheelchair and then rolled him into the nearest bedroom and eased him onto a bottom bunk. An ambulance arrived a few minutes later, and one of the paramedics, as he began writing on his clipboard, commented off-hand: “Oh, yeah, we know Nick—we’ve been chasing him around town for the past few years!”

It rubbed Hafiyz like sandpaper, fired his motivation. Romano had shown up at the house a number of times in the past several years, staying for as long as a few days and as short as a few hours. This time, he’d been off heroin for five days—no small feat, but he’d come farther before, only to fail. All of this, taken together, caused Hafiyz to punch the air in front of him as he waited in the hallway, watching the medics work. “We are gonna beat this thing!” he exclaimed stubbornly, trying to keep his voice low.

Now, a week after the incident, Romano’s gaze has become alert, showing more of his adult, weathered side. He’s approaching the two-week mark, and he’s thinking about the future. He talks with energy about enrolling at Yuba College, about learning a trade, earning a certificate, as other residents have done before. The guys keep up-to-date on Romano’s progress, helping him count the days.

The recovery program involves selecting a personal mentor, and Romano has told Craig that he’s considering asking him the favor. The only trouble, he says, is that Craig has no history with drug addiction. Craig is a strong presence, a man with a certain resolve and motivation—but he came to the house for different reasons, so realistically he can’t relate to Romano’s journey.

Craig is 58 years old. His troubles started a year and eight months ago, when his wife passed away and he began heading emotionally downhill, the pieces of his life soon crumbling away. He was sleeping on the sidewalk outside a Sacramento homeless shelter last spring when a storm erupted overhead. After pondering his despair for a time, he offered up a desperate prayer, he says—and looked skyward to see a lone cloud drifting north, against the wind.

House residents share a moment of prayer.

Photo By Max Whittaker

That, Craig says, was an unmistakable sign from the Lord, saying “head north;” and so soon afterward he encountered Hafiyz visiting the shelter, spreading word about the House of Joseph, a place where he could find the support he needed to start fresh, 45 minutes north up the highway.

This afternoon before the meeting, Craig lingered in the front yard after the others had gone in, mothering the new lawn, which is beginning to sprout around the large shade tree fronting the house. He seems to feed on the high spirits as much as he contributes to them, and he places high hopes in the House of Joseph. That’s why he takes it hard when people start bickering over details. He winds up snapping at someone, like he’d done the previous day.

But now, after Hafiyz’s speech, things seem better again.

The Apostle Michael Sterling lives about an hour away, in south Sacramento, so he doesn’t show up at the house every day. When he does, he’s the most imposing figure on the premises, a towering, bald, barrel-chested man constantly punctuating his phrases with some variation of “Hallelujah, praise God, name of Jesus!”

As a younger man, Sterling sold drugs in his native Los Angeles and eventually went to prison for three and a half years. When he got out, he still had lots of “juice” in his neighborhood—a strong street reputation, plenty of friends willing to set him up in business again. But Sterling, who was raised a Baptist, had found Jesus again, and it was something much more profound, he says, than the “prison Jesus” that often grips inmates. He had begun acting on his new conviction, leading prisoners in prayer and Bible study.

“I was like Joseph, literally,” he says, referring to the namesake of his two recovery homes, the one in Olivehurst and its counterpart in San Bernardino. (Joseph is the Bible figure who, in the book of Genesis, instills strength and hope in his fellow prisoners in Egypt’s dungeons, later to become an elevated government figure.) Sterling has since become a Pentecostal minister, and he now serves as executive director of Kingdom of God Apostolic & Prophetic Ministries International, which runs churches and recovery homes, plus operations in Nigeria, Kenya and India.

Steve Farris tries to pull drivers into the carwash.

Photo By Max Whittaker

When he speaks of his hopes for the House of Joseph, Sterling describes the early years, when there was money for several staff members, when house rules were more rigid, when the recovery rate among his residents, he estimates, was around 80 percent. He estimates that for the past couple years it’s been more like 40 percent.

Sterling talks of pursuing funding through the federal Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program, but that requires resources as well, he says—namely, a person who can guide him and his staff through the process. He suspects funding may be impossible if the house doesn’t meet certain living conditions, and he wants to improve the restrooms, but he estimates the cost at around $10,000.

“I’d almost be better off going through the private sector,” he says.

If Sterling had all he wanted, there would be a six-foot, wrought-iron fence surrounding the yard, with an electronic lock on the gate. There would be a chart on the wall, listing all the residents and their whereabouts throughout the day. There would be enough staff to keep the system running smoothly around the clock, including a resident nurse.

As the house director, Aquil Hafiyz shouldn’t have to be regulating people’s medication, Sterling says. He shouldn’t have to be cooking dinner, which he sometimes does, and he shouldn’t have to be keeping track of people’s whereabouts throughout the day.

It’s for these limitations that Sterling accepts Hafiyz’s lenient style, admitting it’s probably the best approach for the time being. When he visits every few days, he likes to bust Hafiyz’s chops, point out things that need doing, put a little pressure on his employee. He chuckles about that. “Aquil can only do so much,” he concedes.

Craig Anderson polishes off a wash.

Photo By Max Whittaker

A couple weeks have gone by, and Craig’s spirits are low, although he won’t admit it. After spending the day washing cars, he’s in the kitchen, browning beef and cooking noodles in pots that are too small for a dozen people. Craig is working alone, with an oven that looks like it’s falling apart and pots that he’s scraping with a spoon because someone didn’t clean them very well.

Most of the positive atmosphere has disappeared. Nick Romano has completely fallen off again, left the house without telling anyone. The residents say he’s shown up to visit since then, with a beer in hand and enough pills to stay high for some time. They say he’s working an odd job somewhere in the neighborhood, but no one is quite sure of his whereabouts.

Once he left, other guys copped attitudes and stomped out, going back to their old ways, some temporarily, some permanently. Hafiyz says a few wanted to make a point, saying, “Hey, if he can come and go as he pleases, so can I!” They’re snubbing the house rules, Hafiyz says, not showing the respect they’d shown before.

It’s all caused Hafiyz to change his perspective a bit, rethink his unconventional approach. His expectations may have lowered slightly, but he’s still a long way from giving up on his philosophy.

A few days later, Craig is manning the car wash again, waiting for customers in the parking lot of a pizza parlor across the river in Yuba City. It’s nearing five o’clock, and he and Doug Galyardt are expecting someone to pick them up soon, to gather the buckets and towels and head home after another long day.

Doug and Craig have come to share a trait, both refusing to let the house’s atmosphere sour them. Doug is a soft-spoken, weathered-looking man of 39 who came to the House of Joseph after serving jail time for domestic violence. It was a weakness for drugs and alcohol, he says, that got him to that point, and now that he’s lost much of his life—like Craig, but for a whole different set of reasons—he’s determined to leave bad influences behind, and he won’t let any household squabbles sway him.

“I’ve got to give the Lord a chance,” he says. “Those other guys, they’re not worrying about the important things. They’re worrying about the little dogs nipping at their ankles and not thinking about the big dog about to bite their heads off.”

The two continue waiting, reclining in their chairs, surrounded by the noisy rasp of late-afternoon traffic. A former resident pulls up, looking for Hafiyz, saying he has a personal score to settle. Doug and Craig answer politely, and the man drives off. Before long, a young man drives up in a dented sedan and calls out, “How much for a wash?”

“Whatever you want to donate,” Doug replies, bending his thick moustache with a smile. The man smiles back and pulls up next to the island, and Doug and Craig, with their steady, understated, diligent energy, get to work on the final wash of the day.