Blood, Sweat & Fears

How Jim Martin is saving souls—one house at a time.

photograph by Pat Crowe IIJim Martin steps onto the porch of a house at 1 New St. in Georgetown. It is a handsome place, a two-story Gothic Revival clad in cedar shakes with white trim and a blue standing-seam roof. It is a clean property, obviously well-maintained, with some tidy curbside landscaping and a trim yard. From outside, it looks, in a word, homey.

Yet Martin is tentative. The house is filled with men who are recovering from drug and alcohol abuse, some who have recently been released from prison. When several of them live together, he says, things can happen.

“I really don’t know what we’ll find here,” he says. “We could walk in on a fist fight.” He pauses a moment. “Some of the people who have lived here don’t like me, so—who knows?—we could get into a fist fight.”

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A man answers his knock. Martin introduces himself as the person who organized the house. He was the lessee, the first resident, the first person to recruit other residents. Would anyone mind if he looked around?

It is quiet inside. At midday, most of the men are at work. Martin stands in the foyer, pointing at a door off the kitchen. “That used to be my bedroom right there.”

As he speaks, another man walks in. He is neatly dressed in a brown Polo-style shirt, denim shorts, leather deck shoes. He doesn’t recognize Martin at first, though Martin recognizes him in an instant. “You took over my room when I moved out,” Martin tells him.

Eric Amaro’s doleful eyes light up. He shakes Martin’s hand warmly, asks how he is. Amaro is glad to report that things are going well here—for the group, and for him personally.

Amaro, 46, is not, he says, the man he used to be. After an adult life of doing and dealing drugs followed by a few years at Sussex Correctional Institution and the death of his mother, he ended up here, at 1 New St. He pays a small but equal share of the rent and other expenses while he studies for an associate’s degree in human services at Delaware Tech in Georgetown. He is working, he is trying to earn back the trust of his 12-year-old daughter in Wilmington, and he is trying to help the other men in the house.

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When someone commits to changing his life for the better, Amaro says, this model of shared transitional housing—the model that Martin applied here and has championed so vigorously, if quietly, across the state—works. Amaro is getting along OK, and he has a beautiful home to live in.

Standing in a sun-dappled yard—with its small pond, its tall, shady spruce, its air of tranquility—Amaro spreads his arms. “This is what that provides,” he says. “All you have to do is follow the rules. We know the road isn’t going to be easy, but all you need is an opportunity.”

Martin tears up for a moment.

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photograph by Pat Crowe II“When I moved here, I thought I would be in and out,” Martin says. “I thought, ‘This is not the place for me.’ I thought of these people as below me.” He says it almost with a tone of disbelief. “But, man, these people are way above me, way up here”—he raises his hand over his head—“way higher than me.”

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So for the past three years of his life—his three years clean and sober—Jim Martin, once homeless, has tried to find places for as many homeless people as possible. Personally involved in the establishment of well over 20 houses like 1 New St., he has succeeded spectacularly, due largely to the efficacy of the housing model and to the commitment of guys like Amaro, guys who understand that, in Martin’s view, the way to a better self—a better society—is through service to others.

Sadly, Martin has also managed to achieve a bit of notoriety, partly because of a burned bridge or two, partly because when you put a bunch of troubled souls together, well, things are going to happen. Sometimes those things are really bad things.

But Martin has to keep pushing, because there are too many people without homes, too many innocent victims of circumstance, too many good people with bad habits who have made costly mistakes. Because it’s useless to proclaim faith if you don’t live it.

And because, sometimes, you just know something can work.

“Life is messy,” Martin says, “extremely messy. And that’s OK. It’s in cleaning things up that you learn the most.”

There are drunks who are born and drunks who are made. Jim Martin, 51, unknowingly started making himself into a drunk when he took his first drink at age 14. He drank at parties through his years at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, Pa. And like so many students in an area full of colleges and college bars, he continued to party through his years at Villanova University. Drinking was fun, but Martin tried to keep it in its place. He had responsibilities, and he took them seriously.

Martin completed a degree in general studies in 1985. In 1988, he married his college girlfriend and moved to Willow Grove. The couple had the first of three children in 1990.

By then, Martin had started a head hunting company. He had also started to drink daily, scotch and water, as a way to ease his stress. At about the same time, his company failed. He went to work in the library at Villanova, with an eye toward free tuition for his kids, and supplemented his income with jobs as a handyman and home remodeler. Remodeling eventually became his full-time occupation. Then in 2003, he ran for election to the Upper Moreland Township Commission. Against all odds, Martin, a political unknown, won a seat. He served four years.

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photograph by Pat Crowe IIConstruction work eventually took a toll on Martin’s body. When a back injury led to a dependence on highly addictive Oxycontin, Martin gave up his company to become an insurance salesman. In 2007, counting on the $4,000 a year he earned as a commissioner and the health insurance it provided his family, he ran for re-election. He suspects his constituents sensed he was “a little shaky” from drugs and alcohol. He lost the election by seven votes.

“I figured, if I spent some time in public service, I’d make friends who want to buy insurance. It doesn’t work that way.”

The constant stress of self-employment, the responsibilities of family and the demands of the office wore him down. The drinking, which he hid from his wife,  clouded his judgment, and her trust in him diminished. They separated in February 2008.

Martin took an apartment and struggled along in the insurance biz. He made sales, but not enough. While visiting a friend in Manhattan in September 2008, he spent all but his last $100. He went home, told his landlord he couldn’t make the rent, shook his hand, and walked away. Unwilling—too proud—to ask anyone for help, he filled a fanny pack with a few possessions, then left.

“You just get tired of being a knucklehead,” he says. “You get to the point where you don’t want to live anymore. I just wanted to get away from the crap.”

Martin knew all about the Ministry of Caring’s House of Joseph emergency shelter—as a young seminarian at Villanova, before he left the pre-noviate program, he’d volunteered there—so he headed for Wilmington. It seemed like a safer place to be out on the street than Philadelphia. But standing on the corner of Third and Connell, dressed in good trousers and an oxford shirt, Martin felt like a target. With no bed available at House of Joseph, he headed for the U.S. 13-40 split, where, in the woods behind the Wilton Walmart, he curled up on the ground and went to sleep.

Martin stayed two nights. He thought about his children. On the third day, a bed opened up at the shelter. For 30 days, he roomed with several other men. And he contemplated his life.

“Suddenly it hit me: You could be a spectacular human being,” he says. “There was nowhere to go but up from there.”

Martin reached the house’s stay limit before he found work, so he moved to another shelter. While living at Casa San Francisco in Milton, he landed a job clerking at an insurance agency in Dagsboro. With paying work and several weeks of sobriety, he found Oxford House, a national network of 1,500 homes where working men and women who were committed to recovery could get back on their feet. In finding Oxford House, Martin also found a mission.

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Martin would open personally 10 Oxford homes and work on a dozen more over the next two years. He has helped hundreds of people, which has made him friends across the state and earned a prestigious Jefferson Award for public service from WBOC-TV16 in March. Now he wants to open a total of 100 similar properties over the next 10 years. Yet the problem of homelessness in Delaware is so big, he says, even 100 places barely make a dent.

Martin has a wide, square face with a cleft chin, clear blue eyes framed by long lashes, and a slightly unruly thatch of brown hair with a touch of gray. He is of medium height, with broad shoulders and a thick, powerful middle. He is polite and affable.

He is piloting his 25-year-old Mercedes Benz 560SEL down U.S. 113. It’s a nice car, even if it’s showing its age. He bought it from a landlord who was sympathetic to his situation and to his cause. Just about all of Martin’s discretionary income—which is not much—goes into the gas tank so he can do his work. At the moment, he is headed toward a place outside Millsboro, a sprawling seven-bedroom, five-bath home in a neighborhood called Quiet Acres.

“This is the house that got me in hot water with the Oxford House people. It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Martin says. “But it’s only $1,600 a month. It’s so affordable, I thought the guys could all save enough to buy cars.” It hasn’t worked out quite that way, but it is limping along.

Oxford House operates like this: Several residents pay equal shares of the rent and utilities for their homes, which are in typical neighborhoods where public transportation is readily available. While they live there, they must maintain a job and attend regular meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotic Anonymous. They are subject to random urine testing. A bad test gets you booted.

Every resident has mandatory chores, and several act as officers in the house. Everyone meets weekly to take care of house business. The entire group votes on who they allow to live with them, and when someone screws up, they can vote him out. The idea is that, before someone relapses, the other residents will recognize the signs and intercede, help him along. And if he is kicked out, he may be admitted again, if his renewed effort at recovery is sincere.

It’s a good deal. Anyone can move into a fully furnished home without making a big security deposit or getting a credit check, they can stay there for about $100 a week, and they are surrounded by people who understand their issues.

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In governing themselves, Oxford House residents function more like a family than a loose collection of unrelated tenants, which affords them special protection under the law. As long as everyone plays by the rules, residents are free to come and go as they please, entertain themselves as they like. In time, it is hoped, they will develop the discipline and self-esteem to move onto bigger and better things.

A study by DePaul University in 2005 found that, 70 percent to 80 percent of Oxford House residents remained clean and sober after two years. That kind of success is far better than that of halfway houses, where, governed by strict curfews and rules that do little to foster independence, up to 90 percent of residents relapse.

Martin, elected a house officer on his first day with Oxford, quickly came to see the benefits of what is known as the 3/4 recovery model. Within two weeks, he secured a loan of $1,400 from Brandywine Counseling and opened a new Oxford House in Lewes. Then another, then another. There were nine Oxford Houses when he began. Two years later there were more than 30.

Martin’s role was scout, negotiator and recruiter. If the price was right and a prospective new house could accommodate enough men to make it affordable to members who worked, mostly, in low-wage jobs, Martin would present the Oxford model. If the landlord was willing to take the chance, Martin would sign the lease, then move in. From there, he would find members. When the house was full and operating smoothly, he would find a new property, then start the process over again. He changed addresses so many times, the credit bureaus looked at him as unstable and downgraded his rating. While living in Quiet Acres, his car was repossessed. He walked around Sussex for a month.

In all, Martin signed 15 of the leases for the 22 homes he opened or helped to open, making him—a low earner who was living hand to mouth—financially liable: If a group of housemates doesn’t make rent, he has to pay.

“The amazing thing is that it hasn’t happened yet,” he says. “I believe God had me covered. And every time, he has [had me covered].”

Driving along, he thinks back to 1 New St., to Amaro’s apparent success, the continuing success of 1 New St., and wells up again.

“Who would sign that lease? No one. But I knew it would work. I lived in it. I had faith.”

April Hudson bought Martin’s pitch. When she learned that the son of a friend lived in an Oxford House in Rehoboth Beach, she was introduced to Martin. “I told him, ‘Jim I want to give back, and this sounds like a wonderful thing.’” She then spent $70,000 to rehab a property that had been built by her grandparents, believing Oxford House was worth the investment. But, Hudson says, “Jim screwed the hell out of me.”

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By failing to properly screen the candidates, Martin admitted a sex-offender (banned by Oxford House) and men who clearly hadn’t yet given up the hooch. They damaged the property and took liberties with the house. “It was absolutely awful,” she says. She cleared the lot out, contacted Oxford House headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., and found new tenants.

“The gentlemen in my Oxford House now are absolutely fabulous because it was done properly,” Hudson says. “There’s a pride. So I believe in the model. It works. But it has got to be done by the book.”

Martin says that the early life of any new house is “filled with drama.” In each one he has opened, “There are one or two people who hate my guts. I don’t know why.”

In June 2009, Martin was hired by Connections Community Support Programs, based in Wilmington, specifically to open new Oxfords. Connections liked the Oxford model, and Martin says he was “fantastically thrilled that someone would want me to open these houses.”

He made some enemies fairly early on. In searching for money to start new homes—usually about $4,000—Martin discovered a small revolving loan fund specifically for Oxford Houses, granted to the state but managed by an independent contractor. Martin applied for several loans, but was repeatedly denied. Smelling something fishy, he challenged the fund administrator, the late Wilmington politician Wendell Howell, a recovering crack addict, and he pressed the state to investigate.

The state found that the fund was poorly managed—most of the loans had never been repaid—and cleaned up the operation. Howell had friends among Oxford House residents, including Martin’s roommates. After working on a new Oxford House one day, Martin returned home to find his belongings on the curb. His housemates informed him that he had missed a group meeting. They voted him out, and Martin found himself homeless again.

“You really suffer as a whistleblower,” he says. “My life was an absolute wreck.”

Undeterred, and with the loan fund working, Martin continued to open new homes. Quiet Acres was the first to be started from the loan fund. Yet for all his work on Oxford’s behalf, Martin’s relationship with the organization eventually grew strained. The remoteness of Quiet Acres has made it difficult to keep the house filled. (Forty men have passed through it in two years.) A couple of houses failed. Despite Oxford’s mission to help the formerly incarcerated, Martin took an interest in people who were released too recently for the organization’s tastes.

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Then, in April 2010, the president of an Oxford House in Wilmington, a man Martin had personally vouched for, Jesus Pinkston, relapsed, drove a stolen car onto a downtown sidewalk and killed Christopher W. White, 48, executive director of the nonprofit Community Legal Aid Society. Ironically, White was another champion of affordable housing. He was instrumental in converting a decaying property into the new Shipley Lofts. After White’s death, Connections let Martin go.

After Pinkston, Martin started the home at 1 New St., not as an Oxford House, but as the U Count Family Center. He found Amaro, but he left it to others to get the house running in earnest.

Sitting in the airy living-dining-kitchen area of the Quiet Acres home, Anthony Lewis, a 34-year-old recovering crack addict originally from Wilmington, explains, “Relapse is part of our journey. It’s not always a bad thing.” He is the only person since Martin to open new homes, two in Rehoboth. “Oxford House has definitely helped me.”

“People make mistakes,” Martin says. “You have to forgive.”

Since June 2010, Martin has worked for a faith-based group that manages halfway and transitional houses. He earns $13 an hour to supervise a property 24 hours a week. On off days, he works at remodeling and repair for extra income. He dedicates Mondays to his work for the homeless, specifically through Tap Faith. “My new addiction is work,” he jokes.

Martin helped start Tap Faith (Talented Address-less People for Affordable Innovative Transitional Housing) in August 2010 as a group of church members, rehab centers, landlords and others who help the homeless find places to live. Anyone in need can attend a meeting at Georgetown Presbyterian. On one recent Monday, four people, with nowhere else to go, approached the group. While some remained in the meeting room to attend to group business, other members quietly picked up their cell phones and left. They returned a short time later with news that there was a place for all, at least for the time being.

Through Tap Faith, Martin helped start Meghan’s House. It is another Gothic Revival style home, of sunny yellow clapboard, just a few blocks from 1 New St. Meghan’s is an Oxford House that failed. When the men who lived there let it fall apart, the landlord gave up on the idea. Martin persuaded him to try again. Chartered in June, it is now a house for women. The house president—an Oxford resident for six of the seven-and-a-half years since she kicked heroin—was the first woman in the 36-year history of the organization to assume the debt of a men’s house, and she saw that it was paid off.

Martin emphasizes again and again that he accomplishes nothing alone. “I’m just the crazy energy guy who says, OK, let’s do this. I’m just a nut.” Now, through Tap Faith, he has additional support. He has been able to continue opening transitional houses, and he hasn’t had to sign all the leases.

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Though not Oxford properties, the homes work on the same 3/4 recovery model, and they are open to a wider variety of people in need: sex offenders, victims of domestic abuse, the formerly incarcerated, the mentally ill, the disabled who live on Supplemental Security Income—in short, anyone whose circumstances make them the working poor, anyone whose past or present circumstances make it difficult to find a workable living situation. Meghan’s House is such a place.

“Over time, I’ve watched the demand for housing coming from these sectors,” says Scott Walker, of 3D, the Disabled Disadvantaged Delawareans Foundation. Walker is the owner of 17 properties in New Castle County that, for the past 10 years, he has rented to groups of similar tenants. Walker learned of Martin through a newspaper story. When he reached out, Martin introduced him to Tap Faith.

The model works, Walker says. There are occasional problems in his homes—though no violent crimes—yet in living there, residents learn a sense of responsibility, especially the recently incarcerated, who eventually learn to manage their freedom.

“I’ve seen a lot of characters in the past two or three years,” Martin says. “I meet some, I think, ‘This guy is never going to make it.’ Then they totally transform themselves. You have to give people a chance to be a decision maker in their own lives, and you have to give them something to be responsible for. That’s what transformed me.”

Walker points out that for someone in need, housing must come first. And the demand for affordable housing is great. With average rents of $750 to $1,077 for a two-bedroom apartment, depending on location, a person must work two to 2.9 full-time minimum wage jobs to make ends meet, according to the Delaware Housing Coalition. Those are the kinds of jobs—retail sales, food service, janitorial, etc.—many people in recovery and the recently incarcerated work. What’s more, a person who lives on SSI for disability can’t afford an efficiency apartment anywhere in the state.

That’s why Kevin Ann Huckshorn is a fan of Martin and the transitional housing model. Director of the Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, she understands the need to shelter people in recovery. Under the terms of  the state’s recent settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice after its three-plus year investigation of the Delaware Psychiatric Center, the state must help more of the institutionalized through community-based solutions. That’s where Oxford House, 3D and other transitional housing comes in.

“Jim was a real pioneer in looking at that model and seeing how it could be adopted by other populations,” Huckshorn says. “Shelters are not answers. They’re not permanent. And it’s a very unnatural environment. What adult wants to live with a bunch of strangers? It doesn’t do anything to keep people from coming back to the hospital.”

Nor should such people be housed in apartment complexes full of others like them, where the cycle perpetuates itself, Huckshorn says. Integration with the wider community is the key to real help and healing. The 3/4 recovery plan of shared housing, applied to people in recovery and other populations, “is a good model to have in your menu of choices.”

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“That’s why I have to keep pushing,” Martin says. “Because I just know it works. It’s the inmates running the asylum, but it works.”

Martin’s interest in homelessness is nothing new. It started when he was a teen volunteer at a soup kitchen in Camden, N.J., then continued as a 20-year-old seminarian at Villanova. But life—and drinking—got in the way. As Martin’s responsibilities increased, other interests got pushed aside. It took a series of mistakes and a personal experience with homelessness to renew his efforts. Now Martin is a man on fire.

“I didn’t get how you lived your life putting God first,” he says. “I thought I had to make money. That’s why I didn’t make money. The real meaning of life is to look at the other guy and see how you can help. The guys in these houses, they get it. They’re the best people in the world because they get it about life. The people I was with before were the most selfish.”

When he divorced in 2009, he let his ex-wife and children have everything—their home, retirement accounts, savings and other assets—as a sort of penance for his years of drinking and deceit.

“I was 48 years old. It was like I was coming out of high school again. I could get a job at Royal Farms. I could get a job at McDonald’s. I could get a retail sales job. I worked my way into poverty over 20 years. It was stupid.”

So when it comes to shared housing, Martin is walking the walk. As a $13-an-hour wage earner, he is in a nebulous middle group, making too little to cover his living expenses on his own, but too much to be truly homeless. So he and his new wife share the rent and expenses on their home in Georgetown.

“What we’re finding is that transitional housing doesn’t have to be temporary,” Martin says. “It can be permanent. There’s a nucleus of guys at each house who live like this. It’s a great way to live. With a little bit of money, you can actually have a life.”

He estimates that there are more than 100,000 people like him in Delaware—”extremely low-income” people in official parlance, more commonly known as the working poor—and they are a few bills away from becoming homeless. About 1,400 people stay in homeless shelters or motels on any given night, according to the Delaware Housing Coalition—Martin says there are probably another 1,000 on the street—and 6,000 people go homeless at some time during the year.

So opening 100 homes—finding a place for 1,000 people—over the next 10 years, hardly eliminates the need, Martin says, but it is something he will continue to work for. He’s starting one now for men in recovery, in Seaford, for his current employer. “I’m one of the guys,” he says. “I’ve been there.”

And like Eric Amaro, who feels so inspired to want more, Martin has dreams. One day soon, he hopes, he and his wife will take over a local bed and breakfast from a woman who, impressed by his work, will let them live there the rest of their days. They will, naturally, convert it to transitional housing.

“At least, that’s the hope,” he says. “You never know how life will go. We take it one day at a time.

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