The chime on Rusty Bakalar’s phone rarely signals good news. But on a Friday evening in June, as he tallied rents he’d collected from the residents of Champ House, it brought a moment of hope.
On the line was Dalton Jones, 20, who the day before had walked out of the oddly shaped building in Bowie, Md., and vanished without a trace.
Disappearing is against every rule of Champ House, an against-all-odds place that runs on donations and goodwill, where up to 15 men at a time fight addiction through chores and camaraderie.
Their common poison used to be alcohol. Today, most are there because of heroin, prescription painkillers or synthetics such as fentanyl, the drugs that are driving down life expectancy across the country and setting records in Maryland for overdose hospitalizations and deaths.
Bakalar, a 56-year-old retired electrician and former volunteer firefighter, got sober at Champ House years ago. But he kept relapsing until he decided to move in and help others get sober too.
On this night, he listened as Jones acknowledged he had messed up.
Nearby, men were clearing the dinner table and putting away large jugs of iced tea. The counter held business cards, a first-aid kit and Narcan nasal spray, used to reverse the effects of an overdose. There was also a bereavement card with the photo of the most recent resident that Champ House had not been able to save.
“I’m wondering if I can come back?” Jones asked, his voice pleading.
Get the drugs out of your system was Bakalar’s answer. Then you can have another chance.
The house on Normal School Road is named for its late owner, Paul Champagne, a recovering alcoholic.
He began inviting addicts to stay at his two-acre compound in 1990. By the time he died, in 2005, “Champ” had changed the lives of dozens who had knocked on the door, referred by drug courts, rehabilitation centers or friends. Now some of them carry on his mission through a nonprofit group called Champ House Recovery.
Bakalar’s chief partner in day-to-day operations is Steve Clark, a retired sales and marketing executive who got clean at Champ House in 1999 and has found that volunteering there daily helps him stay that way.
It was Clark who led the effort to win state funding for a $100,000 down payment three years ago, when Champagne’s sister, who inherited the property, wanted to sell.
The house subsists on grants, resident fees of $150 a week and donations. Thompson Creek provided doors. Serta brought in new mattresses. Owens Corning installed roof shingles.
And Joe Sell, of Gerber Plumbing Fixtures in Illinois, donated shower stalls and plumbing. He had never heard of Champ House before getting Clark’s email solicitation. But he missed his son, Joseph Peter Sell IV, who died of a heroin overdose five years ago.
“People need to know that the first use of heroin can be a death sentence,” Sell said.
Maryland recorded 2,089 deaths from drugs and alcohol in 2016, the most in state history. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declared a state of emergency in response to the crisis, and the General Assembly passed a raft of laws to try to address it.
Starting this fall, schools must keep overdose reversal drugs on hand and teach students about the dangers of heroin and opiate use. But the state cut a proposal for new emergency treatment centers from 10 to one, much to the dismay of advocates, who say more beds are desperately needed.
“I had a person who was on a waiting list, and before we could admit them, they overdosed and died,” said Peter D’Souza, chief executive of Addiction Recovery, which runs Hope House Treatment Centers. “That was a person wanted to save their life but couldn’t.”
Places such as Champ House are a second or third stop for addicts, after detox or a stint in intensive drug rehab. The state only recently launched a program to regulate recovery houses, and Clark said Champ House is waiting for word on how to apply.
The minimum stay is 30 days. Bakalar and Clark estimate that about 40 percent of residents who stay sober at the house for three to six months are able to move out and successfully resume their lives.
Nightly meetings, which follow the rules of Alcoholics Anonymous, are mandatory. Everyone is encouraged to work an outside job and required to be home at 5:30 p.m. for dinner, a family affair where white- and blue-collar workers, ex-cons and smart alecks trade silly repartee reminiscent of teenage boys away at camp. Mondays are gratitude nights, where each man talks about what he is thankful for.
“We’re normally people that would not mix,” Bakalar said. “But our addiction brings us together.”
Every few weeks, sometimes more often, Bakalar gets the kind of call he dreads.
One former resident was found on the floor inside a local restaurant. Another was slumped over the steering wheel of a parked car. A few others were sprawled on the street. All had overdosed on opioids.
“I’m so tired of seeing these kids die,” Bakalar said.
“We want to save lives,” Clark said. But, lately, “we get invited to too many funerals.”
Jones said he grew up around drugs in the Brooklyn Park area of Anne Arundel County, where he lived with his father. He started selling marijuana and cocaine at age 13. Soon, he was his own best customer and had moved on to heroin.
He managed to graduate from high school and start a job with an electricians union. He was in and out of rehab six times before landing at Champ House, where his mostly older housemates teased and checked up on him as if he were their kid brother. His two months there this spring were his longest stretch of sobriety since becoming addicted.
But there were challenges.
“How you doing, man?” Clark asked one day as Jones arrived home from work.
“Just lost my cousin,” came the answer. “She had been clean two years but went back out and relapsed.”
“Geez,” Clark said, taking off his sunglasses and reaching to grab Jones’s shoulder. “How old was she?”
“Awww, man. A little girl.”
A week later, Jones got news from Baltimore. This time, he said, his ex-girlfriend had overdosed. Without telling anyone, Jones walked a mile to the MARC train station and headed to his old stomping grounds.
In an abandoned Baltimore rowhouse, he spent $650 he’d earned at work on cocaine and heroin, which he smoked over the course of four or five hours.
“I didn’t want to feel nothing,” he would say later.
It doesn’t take much for an addict to use again. Doctors blame it on altered brain chemistry. Addiction specialists point to triggers such as trauma.
“It’s a dis-ease with ourselves,” said Clark, breaking one word into two.
Bankole Johnson, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the opioid crisis is a particularly widespread epidemic, striking not only populations considered at high risk for illegal drug use but also those who become hooked on doctor-prescribed painkillers.
“Opiates are cheap to get, and they are more available,” Johnson said. “It takes a bit of expertise to get crack, but it doesn’t take much to pop a morphine pill.”
Once a doctor cuts off the supply, addicts will do almost anything to find their next high. Police and medical examiners increasingly report opioid varieties laced with fatal amounts of fentanyl or carfentanil, a drug used to sedate elephants.
David Overton, a Champ House resident from Anne Arundel, ran a business delivering pharmacy items to homes before health problems led to a painkiller prescription. Soon, the college-educated businessman was pill-shopping across three counties and showing up at emergency rooms two to three times a week, “hamming up illnesses” to get more drugs.
“If I had surgery, I’d look up the complications to see if I could induce those,” said Overton, 46. “I once pulled out staples, hoping the wound would get infected.”
In 12 years, he overdosed twice. Now he leads meetings at Champ House, where he has lived since January, and he has taken on the job of picking up the food donations from local grocery stores.
“When I was out there, I was always by myself. People didn’t get it,” he said one recent day. “This place plugs me into the world.”
Not everyone finds what they need at Champ House, however.
Cody Bond, the young man whose bereavement card is on the kitchen counter, did two stints at the recovery house, trying to beat a painkiller habit that began after his older brother died in a car crash.
He was 27 when his urine tested dirty during his second stay. Bakalar, following the rules, asked him to leave.
In May , Bond was found dead in his car. He had overdosed on pills. Clark and Bakalar went to his funeral.
“He believed he could beat it,” said his mother, Karen Rogers. “His whole demeanor changed while he was at the house.”
Bond’s stepfather, Nelson Rogers, said the family couldn’t help thinking, at first, that “it wasn’t supposed to happen to us.”
“You just work so hard to instill values and morals, you get them involved in sports and activities and life’s moving along and then boom! It can happen to anyone,” he said. “We know that now.”
Jones regretted leaving Champ House as soon as his high wore off.
After calling Bakalar, he lingered in the hospital all weekend, afraid of losing his willpower if he returned to the streets. He floor-hopped from waiting room to waiting room, eating food his grandmother brought him.
Then he learned his godfather, Danny Eppard, was detoxing at the same hospital. Jones stayed in Eppard’s room until it was time for both of them to go.
On June 6, Jones’s mother took him back to Champ House, 20 pounds lighter and badly in need of a shower. Eppard, who had made arrangements to stay at the house, followed behind in his own car.
At first, things were okay. Jones received one welcome-home pat on the back after another from his addict brothers. He worked on projects around the house, sorted through donated clothes in search of items he could wear, played basketball and trash-talked his opponents.
When he got ready for bed that first night back, he hugged his pillow and grinned. “It’s good to be home,” he said.
It lasted six days.
Eppard had a bad attitude, Bakalar would say later, and was telling the other residents that the program couldn’t help them. He failed a urine test and admitted that he had brought pills with him to Champ House, a violation of house rules. Eppard said the medicine was part of his detox program.
Bakalar said he had to leave. When he went, he took Jones with him.
“You probably won’t see me alive again,” Jones said as he headed out the door.
“I pray that is not the case,” Bakalar said. But the house manager knew the decision was out of his control. “As much as I want that kid to be sober, my will has nothing to do with it.”
That Saturday was Champ House’s annual alumni picnic. The band included some former residents. Children cavorted in a bounce house, a colorful sign of families restored. Bakalar was mobbed with hugs.
But the house manager was thinking about Jones.
The young man called once after leaving, again apologetic, again asking if there was a way back. Bakalar sent a text offering to help find him a rehab bed. No response.
Then Eppard sent a text a day after the picnic. Jones had overdosed again.
He was found, near death, in the parking lot of St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. Medical personnel revived him. He was transferred to a long-term, inpatient rehab facility on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Jones’s family began examining insurance options to determine how long they could afford to have him stay there.
For the time being, at least, Champ House was not what he needed.