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Losers in a Deadly Game Find a Way Out at Retreat House

September 25, 1986|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

TORRANCE — Sipping a cup of coffee on the wide front porch of the Gratitude Retreat--a halfway house for sober male alcoholics on the outskirts of this city's old downtown--Dick looked out across Cabrillo Avenue and remembered the boozy trail that had led him to that porch five months ago.

Years of steady drinking had robbed him of a career as a data processor. "The progression got worse and worse and I couldn't pay my rent or work at anything," Dick recalled. "My thoughts were of how I could get enough whiskey to drink myself dead in a day's time."

During the three months that he lived at Gratitude, Dick recalled, he became close friends with other men who were trying to put alcohol behind them and learned "that you can have fun in sobriety."

Now a Security Guard

Today, the 47-year-old man lives in a residential hotel in the neighborhood, works as a security guard and is going to school to catch up on what has happened in the computer world so that he can go back to the business.

"It's been six years," he said.

While Dick was on the front porch with his memories, Kenny sat on a couch in a small vestibule leading to the living room, talking to some of the other men.

He got there the week before last.

"I lost most of my self-esteem, my wife, cars, houses and numerous good jobs," said the 44-year-old one-time design engineer, adding that he walked into the halfway house carrying everything he owned.

Dick and Kenny are two of the 200 or so men who have lived at Gratitude Retreat in the two years it has been in Torrance, occupying a former hotel where, it is said, a man drank himself to death two months before it became a house for sober living.

Deadly Game

Dick's is a story of success in a deadly game--beating the bottle--that more people lose than win.

Kenny, who has been in five other halfway houses in the past, hopes his story turns out that way, too.

"This is the best house I've ever been in--there's an intimacy between the residents and staff--and I think I have the best chance to make it," he said. "I was desolate, desperate and lonely, a tick away from killing myself or going to jail."

And like many of its residents, the Gratitude Retreat Foundation--which strives to get its residents into jobs and onto the Alcoholics Anonymous program--has a checkered tale to tell about its own five-year existence: from birth to rejection, to near extinction, and finally to success. Alcoholism professionals say it is one of only two halfway houses for male alcoholics in the South Bay; the other is the long-established Beacon House in San Pedro.

Founded in 1981 by recovering alcoholics who wanted to help others grasp sobriety, the Gratitude Retreat Foundation operated a small halfway house in rented hotel rooms in El Segundo for two years. That ended in the fall of 1983 amid bad relations with the management and police contentions--denied by the foundation--that the house attracted crime.

An attempt to buy property in a Hawthorne neighborhood failed after some residents and business people protested that the halfway house would be an unsavory addition to the area and city officials refused to issue a special-use permit.

"It almost died out after Hawthorne," said board member Jerry Guild. "We were disheartened."

But instead, the foundation went on to find a two-story stucco hotel in Torrance that was on the market for $320,000--and did not require anything other than a business license to convert into a halfway house. A supporter made the $65,000 down payment and leased the building to Gratitude with an option to buy it.

$280,000 Loan

Just this July, the foundation obtained a $280,000 loan from Security Pacific National Bank, which allowed it to exercise that option.

And a month later, the South Bay Hospital District, a foundation providing money for health programs, gave Gratitude Retreat a $50,000 grant. It cited Gratitude for returning men to "the mainstream of society and (for) its great success in developing a strong basis of volunteer support for the program."

Although Security Bank officer Deborah Venable, a former foundation board member, helped with the loan, she said approving it was a business decision made by the commercial real estate department based on the financial condition of the foundation and its service to the community.

"It is highly thought of in Torrance and is for the good of the community," she said. "Security was very interested in being a part of that progressive thought and helping out Gratitude so they could continue to function."

Directors Impressed

Philip Valera, executive director of the hospital district, said district directors were impressed by the self-help concept of Gratitude Retreat and its ability to attract support from about 800 people in the South Bay who donate money or work with residents to help them maintain sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.

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