When he was 19 years old, Julio fell in love with marijuana.
By that time, his mother already had abandoned his family. Two years before, he and his father escaped a civil war in his homeland of Nicaragua, and the two of them came to the United States seeking safety and stability.
As he and his father settled into life in Florida, he found work as a carpenter, but he couldn’t shake the temptation to try other drugs. He abused alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, then tried crack cocaine at age 20.
Alcohol was the gateway drug, he said, that led to 25 years of addiction.
“I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t know how to stop,” Julio said, sitting in a leather chair in the living room of a Gaithersburg transitional home, the Wells/Robertson House. In accordance with the program’s policy, the last names of its residents are kept confidential to protect their identities.
The Wells/Robertson House, which admits homeless men and women from the Gaithersburg area, is marking its 25th year.
Those who apply to Wells/Robertson usually have already taken steps to free themselves of addiction, often by attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or seeking help from in-patient programs. The 14 residents of the Wells/Robertson House live under strict guidelines to help steer them into recovery.
Julio, now 47, is one of the home’s newest residents. He has sent out more than 30 job applications since his arrival at the house a month ago. He was offered a position at a Safeway store in Rockville and started working there Jan. 7.
Like Julio, a few residents are beginning the new year by looking back at how far they’ve come.
“I was just sick and tired of living the way I was,” said Sterling, a longtime resident of the Wells/Robertson House.
Sterling, 58, was born in Gaithersburg. He graduated from Gaithersburg High School in 1972 with a car and a job. He soon got married, but after 17 years with his wife and two children, his life slowly fell apart.
“I don’t blame nobody for my drinking and drugging, because my drinking and drugging was my own choice,” he said.
Sterling said he was a “functional addict and alcoholic” while he worked for a moving company, until he was injured on the job. He was left with a crippled right hand and few ways to provide for himself. He became homeless in 1993.
Most of his money went to drugs and alcohol, he said. He drank every day and slept where he could hide in Gaithersburg, including under a bridge in Olde Towne.
After a few years, a friend told him about a treatment center for drug addiction in Emmitsburg, Md. From there, he applied and was admitted to the Wells/Robertson House. He has lived there for 27 months, longer than the usual two-year contract residents sign when they arrive.
Wearing a worn, black baseball cap and weathered jeans, Sterling said he has started to build self-respect.
“I didn’t feel worthy of anybody,” he said. “Now it’s me, I’m first.”
Jimmy Frazier-Bey, Gaithersburg’s Division Chief of Homeless Services, said Wells/Robertson residents are taught skills for coping, problem-solving and team-building. At mandatory meetings with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, they learn the organizations’ 12-step solutions to staying clean.
Frazier-Bey went through the 12 steps himself when he was a resident of the house. After spending 16 months in the Wells/Robertson program, from 1989 to 1991, he went on to work part time at the house. He became a full-time employee 18 years ago and has worked there ever since.
Wells/Robertson graduates often become employees of the City of Gaithersburg, Frazier-Bey said. Staff member Lourdes Caraco said the city often reaches out to the home’s residents when they are looking for new employees. The residents are hired in a variety of departments, including landscaping, recreation and housekeeping, she said.
The city helps fund the program, but it also receives money from the county, state and federal governments. State funds have been slightly reduced in recent years, Frazier-Bey said, but the reduction has been met by an increase in city funding.
“We’ve been holding pretty stable,” he said.
The house is now at full capacity. Many more have applied to live at Wells/Robertson, but priority is given to homeless men and women who live in Gaithersburg, Frazier-Bey said.
Julio said he attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the District for five years before he came to the Wells/Robertson House. He had tried to get away from drugs by moving around the country, but he found breaking free to be “impossible,” he said. He ended up in Langley Park in Prince George’s County.
He was clean for a short time but found it difficult to let a mentor into his life. He couldn’t overcome the trust issues that had affected him since his childhood.
Julio relapsed into addiction and lost his home in 2010.
He tried to live with relatives, he said, but they kicked him out — they didn’t want to live with a drug addict. Instead, he lived outside laundromats and 7-Eleven stores.
“It was shocking to find out that [addiction] was bigger than myself,” he said.
Frazier-Bey said the Wells/Robertson program does everything possible to connect residents with the assistance they need. The program partners with local facilities such as Avery Road Treatment Center in Rockville, where Julio found help, and Mountain Manor, the Emmitsburg facility that Sterling attended.
The staff tries to create a feeling of family, he said. In the living room, a Christmas tree decorated with lights and angel ornaments stands by the fireplace. The wooden floorboards gently creak under the weight of footsteps all through the two-story, six-bedroom house. Every evening, the residents gather for dinner while one of them cooks.
“Everything is done in a community setting, like a family,” Frazier-Bey said. “This is a home.”
The Wells/Robertson House was named for Mary Wells Robertson, who owned the home for more than six decades before selling it to the city in 1987, according to city documents.
Around that time, merchants in Gaithersburg started to express concern over homeless people who were living near their stores, Frazier-Bey said. The city decided to put a new homeless advocacy program in the home, which was renovated by 1988. The program began in December of that year.
More than 500 Wells/Robertson residents have completed the program since its inception.
Julio said getting accustomed to the program was challenging when he started, but he has embraced it and his fellow residents.
“I slowly let my guard down and let everybody in,” he said.
The house’s 12 full- and part-time employees gave him a gift card to J.C. Penney, where he bought clothes for work. Every day, he wears a rosary of wooden beads on his wrist and a silver pendant on a long, black shoestring around his neck. The pendant, featuring a man on a cross, signifies Saint Benedict — to Julio, “San Benito.” It chases away temptation and bad influences, he said.
Julio has been clean for about three months.
The Wells/Robertson House was “more than I ever expected,” he said. “So many people are willing to help you, in any aspect. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m not alone.”