BY TERRI FINCH HAMILTON
PHOTOS BY T.J. HAMILTON
Four guys sit around Charlie Morse’s kitchen table talking about daily life stuff — Charlie’s new job, the church down the street they might check out on Sunday.
Lynn Slyter, Jr. tells how he just learned his sister lives a stone’s throw from his new apartment.
That’s when it becomes clear there’s a different kind of story behind these four guys and their new digs.
Wouldn’t a guy know where his own sister lives?
“I’m just getting around to talking to my family again,” Slyter says.
“Is it good?” asks his friend, Brian Elve.
“Real good,” Slyter replies with a smile. “They’re really proud of me.”
These men live in Iron House, new transitional housing in Kentwood run by Guiding Light Mission. They lived at the downtown Grand Rapids mission for months, going through a substance abuse program designed to get them back on their feet, sober and in society.
But adjusting to life on your own again, clean and working and paying rent, is tough. A six-month stay here, in four apartments housing eight men, is designed to boost their chances of success.
Elve, 46, is a vocational coach at Guiding Light, paid to help the men there find work.
But, like them, he’s a recovering alcoholic. He’s been to a sort of hell and back more than once. Now he lives at Iron House as a mentor and facilitator.
And as a guy hoping to stay sober.
Elve knows as well as anybody how hard it is not to relapse. He takes a sip of his coffee, and tells how a privileged East Grand Rapids kid ended up living at Guiding Light Mission.
After graduation he headed to Montana State University on a basketball scholarship. He pondered a career in law enforcement.
“I didn’t drink that much in college, because of athletics, but when I did, I drank to excess,” he says.
The drinking increased when Elve was in his 20s, working a sales job in Cincinnati. He was in hotels a lot, alone. Vodka was good company.
“Soon, my sales calls ended at 3 instead of 5,” he says.
He moved back to Grand Rapids and coached basketball at Calvin College while he took education classes at Grand Valley State University, planning to be a teacher.
He landed a job teaching high school history and government. His drinking got worse, but he still functioned, he says.
“I could still present myself well,” he says. “I wasn’t a rambunctious drunk. I wasn’t a fighter. I told people, ‘If you don’t see me for a while, don’t worry.’”
But there was reason to worry. If you didn’t see Elve for a while, chances are he was holed up in a hotel room, drinking a gallon of vodka a day.
“I’d have stints of sobriety, and things would go well for a while,” he says. He coached basketball at East Grand Rapids High School. But sometimes, he didn’t show up.
There were hospital visits. Detox trips to Pine Rest. Elve lost his teaching job. He lost his house.
“All my options were gone,” he says. “None of my family wanted to see me. That was tough. My Mom and I had been pretty close. I was a kid who had the good life in East Grand Rapids. Now, I’m a disappointment.”
He went to Guiding Light Mission, hoping for help. He was still drunk when they did his intake assessment.
“I used to drive by there and think it was for bums, for losers,” he says. “For people who didn’t want to work. There was some of that going on. But I also met guys who worked at GM. An architect. A guy with a master’s degree in business.
“These people weren’t stupid,” he says. “They weren’t working the system. This is just what happens when you make bad choices. The degree of difference between all of us there was very, very minimal.”
He went through Guiding Light’s three-month program, but not too long after he left, he was drinking again.
When he showed up at the mission door a second time, “They said they didn’t know if they could help me,” he recalls. “My life was a wreck.”
Guiding Light did help Elve. The program had changed dramatically since the first time he was there.
Stuart Ray is the executive director now. When he took over four years ago, “it was the last place you’d send anybody,” Ray says. The board had decided to close the place, he says.
“Most programs last 28 days,” he says. “They’re mostly about detox — drying people out. But it takes a year for your brain to normalize. And five years before you have a real shot at abstinence.
“I look for ways to keep them here,” Ray says, “so we can get some real work done.”
Now the average man’s stay is 242 days. And the work happens through two different programs.
The Back to Work Program provides a short term stay for men who are employed or seeking full-time employment, allowing them time to save money while they look for permanent housing.
They use the computer lab for online job searching, e-mail, and resume preparation. They work with Elve, the job coach, to find employment.
The New Life in Christ program helps men suffering from chronic homelessness, substance abuse and other life challenges. They get counseling, work therapy, bible study and mentorship.
And now, with the opening of Iron House Sober Living, men who qualify can get an extra boost of support while they transition back to society. They pay $350 a month for rent, and get $900 of it refunded after six months of sober and successful living.
Elve, who wrote the rules for the house, will be like a “big brother” for the guys there, Ray says.
“Brian has relapsed enough, tumbled down the stairs often enough, that he knows what will work,” Ray says. “He’s a very hopeful person and men tend to gravitate toward him because of his hopefulness. He brings a sense of genuineness. I hope he finds himself again.”
Elve says he’s on his way.
“I’m not the man I was,” Elve says. “This will be a testing ground for me, too. In order to stay sober and healthy, I have to start giving back. People in AA say the magic starts to happen when you help other addicts, other alcoholics.
“This will be very real,” he says. “It’s my job to remind these guys, when they complain they don’t have cable, to remember where we all were a year ago.
“Gratitude is huge.”
Elve is quiet for a minute. Then he tells how he spent Labor Day weekend with his family at his parent’s place north of Grand Rapids. When the other adults had to leave early, his young nieces and nephews wanted to stay.
He could stay there with them, Elve offered, and drive the kids home later.
“A year ago, my sisters wouldn’t have even answered my phone calls,” he says. “But they didn’t hesitate. They said, ‘Sure.’”
Elve chokes up as he tells this, and he wipes away a couple tears.
“Hope,” he finally says. “If these guys can get a little taste of that…”
Elve takes a deep breath and tells of his hope for a small, positive community in his new apartment building in Kentwood.
“I want to be the neighbors who smile.”
Join Guiding Light this year for their Annual Banquet featuring Michael Seaton, author of Becoming a Good Samaritan, for a revealing look into the heart of the Good Samaritan Message. This multi-media program will include interviews with well-known Christian Authors, including: Mike Huckabee, Desmond Tutu, Chuck Colson, John Ortberg, Joni Eareckson Tada and many others. This will truly be a night you won’t want to miss. For more information: http://www.lifeonthestreet.org/content/2013-annual-banquet