He stooped as he walked, his matted gray hair covered in a flat cap.
The temperature reached 80 degrees in Allentown on Thursday, but he was wearing a heavy, dirty coat and thick leather boots. It is likely that he had no safe place to leave his clothes.
The 77-year-old is a regular visitor to the Change on Hamilton Recovery Center, according to Easton resident Jennifer Latham. She’s a certified recovery specialist at the center.
“Do you need a coffee?” she asked him.
“Yeah, I’d like a mug,” he replied.
Latham said the old man used heroin regularly.
If he uses heroin, why should she offer him coffee? Does that mean she tolerates her habit?
It’s the right thing to do if she wants him to clean up one day, Latham said.
He is one of thousands who have walked through the doors of Change on Hamilton since it opened in March 2021 in Allentown. If you add up the number of people in attendance at each support meeting, you’ll reach almost 10,000.
if you add up every participant in every community program, including mindfulness training, yoga, and even bingo night, you’ll reach over 15,000 participants.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the community,” said program director Deborah Tingle.
Last month, more than 50 people seeking to clean up were assessed and referred to appropriate treatment. But the center is more than that. It is aimed at families of people struggling with an addiction to non-perishable foods or programs. The Easter Bunny came through on Friday with candy and coloring books for the neighborhood kids.
It’s a safe place for single mothers, for the homeless, for people in recovery, or even for people like this 77-year-old man who can’t shake off his heroin addiction.
“He’s not ready to clean himself up. But that doesn’t make him less than a human being. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve kindness,” Latham said.
You won’t help anyone if you close the door on them, Latham said. You can set boundaries while treating people struggling with addiction with dignity. Giving him a cup of coffee, Latham showed him a safe place where he might one day seek help.
“Asking for help is the hardest thing. When you put people at ease, they’re ready to walk through the door” and get into addiction treatment, she said.
She should know. Latham used illegal drugs for 23 years. She spent many years living on the streets until she finally went into recovery. She has been sober since 2019. At Change on Hamilton, she helps others overcome the same obstacles as her.
“You can come here and sit down and have a conversation outside of the drug element. We want to empower people, help people, give them advice on how to live a drug-free life,” she said.
Case manager Ray Gonzalez assesses walk-ins and quickly refers them to treatment for drug and alcohol problems. Acting quickly is important. If you wait, it may be too late. So he takes calls at home at 10 p.m. and gets to work.
The Bethlehem resident has been sober for nearly 20 years. It is worth losing sleep to help others join him in sobriety.
“When they finish the treatment, they call you and say, ‘Ray, thank you. You saved my life,” he said.
The center falls under the umbrella of Lehigh Valley Drug and Alcohol Intake, which is led by CEO Jenny Duval. Lehigh Valley Drug and Alcohol Intake has an intake center and peer support program in Easton in addition to Change on Hamilton. Change on Hamilton gets its funding through the Lehigh County Drugs and Alcohol Division.
The changes to Hamilton’s variety of services make it the first of its kind in the Lehigh Valley, Duval said. The center partners with the Lehigh Valley Health Network to provide access to medical care. It partners with employers who want to give jobs to convalescing people. It offers help finding housing and mental health care. It provides volunteer opportunities for people on probation who need community service hours.
“We offer so much,” Duval said.
The handful of employees are committed to reaching as many people as possible.
“Our numbers speak volumes. We will continue to serve selflessly and we are excited to see what next year has in store for us,” Tingle said.
Latham will help everyone, especially those struggling with addiction. She has a second job outside of Change on Hamilton as a Certified Recovery Specialist for Lehigh County’s Plan of Safe Care program. The state-mandated program offers counseling for pregnant women who use drugs, even if they don’t want to stop using.
Many people ask Latham how she can work with these women. They wonder how a pregnant person can use drugs.
As upsetting as their behavior is to non-drug users, it’s how ashamed they are of themselves, Latham said. They carry heavy burdens and giving up drugs means dealing with the emotional pain they use them to escape.
Many have not received prenatal care and are so far into their pregnancies that they see no point in changing their lives. When they give birth and lose custody of their children, they see no point in getting sober.
“I’m currently working on three cases, all of which have been successful so far,” she said.
It’s hard work, admits Latham. A lot of people don’t want to be helped. It’s even harder to change your life when you’re pregnant and addicted to drugs, she says.
“All I do is offer support and resources. They knock it down,” she said.
If you are struggling with an addiction or know someone who is, you can call Lehigh Valley Drug and Alcohol Intake at 610-923-0394.
Or go to Change on Hamilton, 927 Hamilton St., Allentown. You can call Change on Hamilton at 484-350-3916 or email the recovery center at [email protected]
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Rudy Miller can be reached at [email protected].