Paul Wilkins takes Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed cuts to social service programs personally — a former drug addict who now works to help others defeat addiction, he knows first hand the importance of social services programs.
They saved him.
“If supports are taken away for someone who’s been using drugs for 15 years, it’s hard for them to make a conscious decision not to use,” said Wilkins, recovery specialist with the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities Transformation Initiative.
“To be very honest, I was very ambivalent about coming out of my drug addiction. It was something that I loved. I just really didn’t like dealing with the consequences.”
Wilkins is a prime example of how social service programs can work.
For more than 20 years, in the grip of a relentless drug addiction, the 47-year-old bounced between jail, rehab and the streets.
“That life just crushed me,” he said.
By his own count, he was in and out of rehab 23 times between 2003 and 2008.
“Normally when I came out of a program, I went to a recovery house, and when that was over, I was back in the streets,” he said. “I stayed clean while I was in the program, because I didn’t want to go back to jail. As soon as they let me go, I started getting high.”
It got so bad that even his family was unable to help.
Wilkins grew up in Southwest Philadelphia and Germantown and came from a strict, religious family.
“I lived a pretty sheltered life. I didn’t begin using drugs until I was 23 years old,” he said. “Once I began the drug cycle, it hit really hard and took my attention away from any values that my family had instilled in me.”
At first he tried pills: Valium, “pancakes and syrup” (a combination of pain killers and cough syrup with codeine), and Quaaludes. But, as they got too expensive, Wilkins turned to crack, methamphetamine and heroin — sniffing it and then shooting it.
“From that point on, if I wasn’t in jail, I was in the streets shooting dope,” he said.
To fund his habit, he turned to crime: robbery, theft by deception, assault, promoting prostitution.
“The whole gamut,” he said. “The stuff that goes with using drugs. Anything you can do to make a dollar.”
It was a deadly cycle that dominated his life for 20 years.
“I was elated when I had drugs,” said Wilkins. “If I had drugs and somebody offered me help, I didn’t take it because I had drugs. When I ran out I was sick — defecating on myself, urinating on myself, sleeping in abandoned cars, abandoned buildings. That’s what drugs did to me.”
It was only after he managed to get long-term help, made possible through a combination of state and city funded programs, that he finally turned his life around.
“In traditional programs you would only receive 90 days of treatment,” he said. “You just had supports that would help you for a little while, but the end result would be you would be homeless again and right back in your neighborhood where you were using drugs in the first place.”
The city’s Chronically Homeless Alcohol Drug (CHAD) treatment program — a long-term residential program, a one-year clinical therapeutic intervention — that also provided housing and other supports after he finished treatment, helped Wilkins stand on his own.
After his year of treatment, he moved into his own apartment, was eligible for public assistance, food stamps and healthcare.
He received $200 a month in food stamps, $102 a month in public assistance and access to health care.
“It seemed like a $1 million,” he laughed. “I had a nice little penny to buy me some sneakers and a little outfit to get cute, a haircut, you know smelling a little good. That was very, very big support. The public assistance, the housing and the continued after-care were supports that helped me maintain my recovery process and propelled me to the point where I am today.”
The program also helps participants get GEDs, attend anger management classes, therapy, parenting and life skills courses. City officials said that because of the way the budget is structured, it’s too early to tell exactly which programs would face cuts.
Initial estimates suggest that as many as 21,000 Philadelphians would be immediately impacted if the proposed budget, which included $41 million in cuts in social services in Philadelphia, is enacted.
“This budget takes apart many of supports have been in place for a very long time for people who are most vulnerable,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Opportunity, Donald Schwarz, recently. “The impacts of the governor’s budget … are going to be impossible to work with.”
Funding for the homeless outreach program that pulled Wilkins off the street is almost certainly on the list — as are welfare funding and food stamp programs.
Wilkins emerged from the CHAD program a success and now works for the department that administered the program that helped him pull his life together.
“We help people live on their own independently and be successful with it, people who struggle like myself,” he said. “People are finding value and worth in the recovery process.”
He’s also enrolled in college, where for the last three semesters he’s had a 4.0 grade point average, pursuing a doctorate in behavioral health and human services.
He now looks forward to a healthy productive life, but worries that others like him will be left behind if they don’t have access to the support he did.
“Without these supports you won’t have enough emergency rooms to help the people who will be harmed as a result of this,” he said. “You won’t have enough jails for people who will commit crimes as a result of this. You won’t have enough mental institutions to put people in … and you won’t have enough graveyards to bury people who will die as a result of those of budget cuts.”