Miami-Dade County

Put to work: $1 million grant helps Camillus House expand job program

Roy Ricks, who spent 27 years of his life on the streets in downtown Miami, now works and takes care of the outside of the Arsht Center, on Biscayne Boulevard. Roy, who just got married, spends his lunch break with his wife, Carolyn Ricks, Tuesday, December 2, 2014. Ricks was part of a job program at the Camillus House, which has helped several formerly homeless men off the street, and achieve their educational, vocational and employment goals.
Roy Ricks, who spent 27 years of his life on the streets in downtown Miami, now works and takes care of the outside of the Arsht Center, on Biscayne Boulevard. Roy, who just got married, spends his lunch break with his wife, Carolyn Ricks, Tuesday, December 2, 2014. Ricks was part of a job program at the Camillus House, which has helped several formerly homeless men off the street, and achieve their educational, vocational and employment goals. Miami Herald staff

Roy Ricks heard a voice in his head telling him he had to change his life or die.

Cold, shaking and high from his last hit of cocaine the night before, Ricks huddled under the steps of a downtown Miami Metromover station and knew he had to listen.

But first he headed to his usual spot at Northwest 11 Terrace and Second Avenue with a paper cup to panhandle before dawn.

“Boy, you’re going the wrong way,” the voice said.

He dropped the cup, walked to Camillus House and begged for help.

March 12, 2011, was his lucky day — there was an empty bed at the social service agency.

So began his nearly year-long journey to kick his bad habits and become a better man.

Today Ricks is sober, has a job and has his life back. He credits Camillus House for taking him off the streets and making him feel human again.

“It’s a dark, scary place to be, on the streets,” said Ricks, 59, who spent more than three decades on the streets. “I knew I was always a good person, I just needed help bringing that out.”

As part of the recovery process, Camillus House offers clients job training so they can provide for themselves and eventually transition into a job.

For residential clients — many of whom are addicted to drugs or alcohol and have been homeless for years — having a job is a mandatory part of the process.

“If you don’t have a job, you don’t have money and if you don’t have money you probably don’t have a home,” said Paul Ahr, president and chief executive officer of Camillus House. “You have to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Ahr said Camillus House puts weekly job postings out and offers résumé and other help. The No. 1 challenge in placing formerly homeless men and women is that many come with criminal records. But Ahr said the counselors are realistic when it comes to job placement and often companies will overlook their past.

“There are many jobs out there that these men and women can do,” he said.

At the new campus, which opened in June 2012, there is a large kitchen with modern equipment. Inside are a bread slicer, fryer and restaurant-quality ovens. The laundry room has several large washers and driers to handle hundreds of pounds of dirty clothes and linens. And a mail room offers a place to sort packages for staff and residents. The facilities — paid for with a $1 million grant by Bank of America — give clients training opportunities for future careers in restaurants, hotels and other areas.

Bank of America committed to the $1 million in 2007 as Camillus House began its expansion plan. Maria Alonso, the market manager for Bank of America, said focusing on careers is of “critical importance to help end chronic homelessness.”

Alonso said the relationship with Camillus House has been growing strong for years and the company’s commitment goes beyond the money.

“It’s not just the check, it’s about our ongoing commitment to Camillus House,” she said, adding that staff often volunteers to serve meals and helps with other projects.

For Ricks, who works as a housekeeper for the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, there is no better feeling than going to work and getting a paycheck.

He now has his own apartment, is married and hasn’t been late on a bill in years. He has a regimented schedule and relies on the bus to get to and from work.

“I would have never in a million years thought I’d be able to do this,” he said.

At 13, Ricks, who was born in Overtown and raised in Liberty City, began hanging out with older men on the street. By 15, his mother kicked him out.

He spent the next few years in and out of jail and prison for crimes including firearm possession, burglary and drug possession.

His life spiraled out of control.

He spent more than three decades sleeping on benches, under steps and in parks.

“I was the worst kind of junkie,” he said.

No one in his family would talk to him. He remembers a time when he went to his mom’s house for food.

She filled a Styrofoam plate with fried chicken, rice and collard greens, handed it him and told him to leave her house. He found a bench and ate.

“That hurt real bad,” he said, fighting back tears.

He has since rebuilt a relationship with his mother, who is now 87 years old.

“The first time she hugged me was the best feeling in the world,” saying she was there when he graduated from Camillus House about two years ago.

The job-training component of Camillus House’s recovery has also helped Richard Sargent, who was on the streets for about nine years.

Now 42, Sargent works for the Downtown Development Authority, an agency that promotes business in downtown Miami, as field inspector/supervisor handling changing lights, painting public property and landscaping. He also is close to graduating from Miami Dade College with a computer networking degree.

Sargent’s path to Camillus House began in 2000 when he was a bartender in Central Florida, where he grew up. He said he “lived the lifestyle,” but still managed to keep a job and a place to live. He had graduated high school and was on a path to become a restaurant manager.

In June 2000, he learned his mother had terminal ovarian cancer. She died that October, sending him into a tailspin.

“I never really grieved properly,” he said, adding that he made a series of bad choices and turned to alcohol and drugs.

In 2002, he packed his old brown Dodge van and headed south to Miami. To this day he doesn’t know why he chose Miami, but he knew he needed to leave.

When he arrived, it was the first time he experienced homelessness.

He lived in his van and did odd jobs including parking cars to make a little cash. He said there were times when he got his life on track, but he soon spiraled out of control. He lost touch with all of his friends and family including his daughter. When he made the decision to go to Camillus House he knew it wouldn't be easy but he didn't have a choice.

There were times when he wanted to quit. On the streets he was free to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. But in the program he had to share a dormitory-style room with 28 men and he had to share three bathrooms. He had to get up when he was told, eat what he was given and do chores. Sargent soon got into a routine and began to face his demons. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, met with counselors and started to apologize to his friends and family for making bad choices.

When he made it through the first six months of the program he was introduced to the job-training program. Having the responsibility of working kept him going. When he completed the nine months, he was offered a part-time job then a full-time job with the DDA. He now has his own apartment, can pay all of his bills on time and just hit the three-year milestone of being sober.

Most important to him, he has rekindled a relationship with his 13-year-old daughter.

If Sargent could go back to his time on the street and give himself advice he’d say:

“Give yourself a chance. You still have a chance to make things better until the day you are dead.”

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