Rehabilitating Baltimore's Most Vulnerable at Mi Casa Su Casa

By Seth Ferranti 04/20/16

Martin McNair—the director of substance abuse and behavioral health program Mi Casa Su Casa—on his aim to change inner-city Baltimore.

Mi Casa, Su Casa
via Author

You can't think your way into right living. But you can live your way into right thinking. This is the motto of Mi Casa Su Casa, a supportive housing program in Baltimore for drug addicts, veterans, prisoners reentering society, and homeless men.

In less than a year, they’ve helped 23 men get their lives back together in the dangerous streets of Baltimore where drugs, unemployment and homelessness reign supreme. From the death of Freddie Gray to the riots and police scandals, Charm City has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. But Martin McNair, the program director, is out to change all that.

Martin works daily fighting the problems that have traumatized his hometown. Working with the Abell Foundation, the University of Maryland Forensic Social Work Fellows Clinical Law Office and many other organizations and professionals who share his passion, he provides resources for those in need. From graduating substance abuse and job training programs, to transitioning into independent living situations, to successfully gaining employment and even getting engaged, the men who go through Mi Casa Su Casa are separating themselves from the hopelessness that surrounds them.

With the help of Carlton Carrington, Martin is making a huge difference in the mean and often volatile neighborhoods of inner-city Baltimore, where life is cheap and drugs are abundant. Their program aims to take back the city one life at a time. It's no easy task in a metropolis where drug addicts roam freely, police helicopters fly overhead hourly, and the murder rate has skyrocketed.

To learn more about the positivity they are bringing to Baltimore’s urban centers, The Fix sat down with Martin for a chat.

What is your background and how did you get involved in Mi Casa Su Casa?

I’m a guy out of West Baltimore who grew up in the '80s in a single-parent home. Like so many of us in these communities, I was raised with misinformation piled on top of misinformation. The rites of passage into manhood are so distorted due to lack of positive male role models. I came up in a time where if you got locked up and didn’t tell on your friends, you were a solid man. If you went over to the jail and no one raped or robbed you, you came home with street credibility. As a kid I wanted to go to the penitentiary, even after going away to college, to prove my street credibility. My first epiphany in life was my first visit to a penitentiary when I was five years old. The penitentiary visiting room looked the same 20 years later. The only difference was, I was on the other side of the table. I was in prison mentally for 10-plus years battling addiction and a terminally cool and fatally hip lifestyle. After my first bid, I got out of the mental prison I was in for so long. I came home after three years and never looked backed. I established several businesses and became a proud father of the best left tackle in the class of 2017. But still I believed in helping the young people in the communities if they’re receptive to some information. I believe it takes a village. If a lot of us men who say we’re men step up, then we have to set positive examples for these young brothers and sisters.  

What problems did you encounter when you started Mi Casa Su Casa?

Mi Casa Su Casa was started towards the end of 2013 by myself and Carlton Carrington. We partnered with the Abell Foundation and Open Society Institute, who provided housing assistance for up to seven months for clients. We thought this was enough time to achieve some of the social outcomes of employment, SSI benefits, housing and whatever other unrealistic social outcomes society deemed necessary. We initially wanted to start a supportive housing program that houses homeless veterans, reentering citizens, and men coming out of homeless shelters who have really just lost their way and are trying to get back on their feet en route to a better, productive life. Our hearts were in the right place, trying to save a lot of men with the right drug program, the right job training, and of course thinking that the right girl would make all of the societal ills and the inner demons these guys faced disappear. How wrong we were. Due to a lack of enthusiasm to be successful, the various unacknowledged mental health issues, substance abuse issues, methadone maintenance dependence and the mentality that a lot of these men have in trying to get over on the state for some type of disability, we felt there had to be a better way to offer the services that were needed. We realized that the 40 and over crowd was the demographic that worked for us because there wasn’t too much drama. These guys were tired of sleeping in the woods and shelters, and wanted a peaceful environment where they could be safe in, most of all. What we realized was that the men that have successfully come through our program wanted to be successful and took advantage of the opportunity to transition from their previous situation. 

What is the current state of Mi Casa Su Casa?

Mi Casa Es Su Casa is a state-certified behavioral health and substance abuse facility. We have several levels of treatment starting at Partial Hospitalization (PHP), which is a seven-day-a-week treatment model. Intensive Outpatient (IOP), which is the next phase from PHP, involves less hours per week but consist of transitioning to our recovery housing model of more of a therapeutic community concept. The peers facilitate more of the day-to-day recovery activities. They also get some of their independence back in regards to job training and utilizing other resources to get a foothold in the community to make a successful transition when they're ready to do so.

We feel the significance of our therapeutic community at Mi Casa Su Casa will be more successful than sending them elsewhere. The drug use and chemical maintenance dependency is only a symptom of a bigger problem that hardly ever gets addressed. The reentering citizen may not have a substance abuse problem, but how can you expect him not to have PTSD living in a violent society for the last three to five decades? We can address a lot of these diagnoses and symptoms that are non-medical from the behavioral and substance abuse program. Our program motto is: You can’t think your way into right living. However, you can live your way into right thinking.

What are the problems that most ex-offenders reentering society encounter?

The day-to-day challenges initially can be a conundrum—getting to appointments, trying to get benefits, and most of all the reality of them not being taken care of anymore. They have to be independent, which is a shock initially. One of my residents who came home April 29th after doing 41 years said, “I haven’t talked this much in 41 years, why are you dudes being so nice to me?” The mindset is that someone is running game if they talk too much. There’s a lot of apprehension towards genuine help to see him be successful since his release. No foul on his end, it's just the way he survived for the last 41 years while in prison. This habit of survival doesn’t go away overnight. 

How do you help them?

The success of every person that comes through Mi Casa Su Casa shows that we were successful in our task to help make a difference in someone’s life. The more people we realistically help, the more the Mi Casa Su Casa gospel gets spread to the masses. 

Pertaining to the reentering citizens, we still deal with them if they qualify for our program in regards to substance abuse treatment. We don't deal with the long-term geriatric reentering citizen because there's really no sustainability with that client demographic. We are progressively moving forward with the treatment to the addict still suffering. The ones who have nowhere to go but up. Everyday clean, sober and free is a good day. 

What's the climate like in the city after the riots?

Baltimore is still struggling after the riots. The month of the riots was one of the most deadly months we have seen in a long time. We were struggling to get by one day at a time without any murders. It was looking bleak for a minute. The spirit for change is here from the masses, however. The realities of these communities that have been affected by this violence are still very real. The police were silently protesting State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby's decision to bring the charges against the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death. There are a few of us frontline soldiers who continue to rumble like Stokey Cannady, Steve Dixon from Penn North, Pastor Jamal Bryant and a few solid brothers and sisters who continue to battle the daily issues we deal with in Baltimore. 

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