She's past the prostitution, past the abusive lover and low self-esteem. She's past the cocaine addiction, of feeding her children suckers and soda while she sold their toys for drugs. She's even getting past the worst part: permanently losing all legal rights to her son and two daughters this year after being branded an unfit mother by the courts.
Now Melanie Devereux, 29, is clean, dry--and, under the tutelage of the Los Angeles Mission--being readied to move out, get a job and join the 135 million American workers being honored this Labor Day. Although the Christian mission is best known for its emergency shelter and meals program, it also offers comprehensive job and life skills training that helps reshape the down-and-out.
The transformation from strung-out street walker to self-respecting job applicant has encompassed a dizzying year of dramatic change. Devereux has been schooled in hygiene and housekeeping, self-defense and Scripture, literacy and computer skills. Once lost in a haze of cocaine highs, she is now piercingly self-aware, writing anguished essays such as "A Childless Mother." Once focused on her next fix, she now dreams of a career helping women like herself--maybe as a counselor or minister--and is pondering Bible school as her next step.
Most of all, she is firmly anchored in faith, a new family of Christ and the conviction that she is loved and valued by God.
"Staying sober is the easiest part," says Devereux, a short, dynamic woman who sports mustard-yellow nail polish and a "God Rules" T-shirt. "The reason why you get high is where the problems are--the low esteem--and that's where spirituality comes in. I know my brother is Jesus and God loves me no matter what."
The miracle of Melanie Devereux is repeated daily at the mission on skid row in downtown Los Angeles. Executive Director Ron Brown said two-thirds of the 200 people enrolled in the rehabilitation program at any given time graduate; 94% of that group land jobs, and more than 80% are still working after a year.
Those results are grounded in the painstakingly thorough job the mission does in treating people's intertwined physical, mental and spiritual needs during a 13-month live-in program: getting them off drugs, used to a daily schedule, cleansed of their emotional demons, reschooled in basic reading, math and memory skills, tutored in life skills such as buying a car, shopping, getting insurance and forging healthy relationships.
Only after building a foundation for a functional life does the mission program help find jobs. Program participants are allowed to continue living at the mission--a spotless, 155,835-square-foot facility with 303 beds, a gym, computer center, entertainment room and chapel--for six months but are required to save 80% of their pay to build a nest egg for use when they finally venture out on their own.
The role of religion is crucial to the program's success, Brown says: "You have to be grounded somewhere, and we believe being grounded in a relationship with Jesus Christ is what helps you stand firm."
The idea that faith-based organizations are uniquely positioned to deliver social services is gaining ground, particularly in this political year. Both presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore--along with think tanks, foundations and religious groups--are touting proposals to expand the role of faith-based organizations in assisting with public health, welfare and other programs.
Stephen Monsma, a Pepperdine University political science professor, says no comprehensive studies on whether faith-based social service programs are more effective than government or secular ones have been conducted. But, he added, small-scale studies of a Christian drug-rehabilitation program and the impact of Bible study on the recidivism rate of prison inmates suggest that the religious component does make a difference.
"Faith-based organizations say: 'God made you. You are important; you have value and worth,' and this helps with self-esteem," Monsma said.
Other advantages of faith-based programs, he added, include the crucial ability to hook people into a nurturing support network of family and friends, which helps maintain newly learned good habits. (In many of the initiatives being touted by Bush and others, however, faith-based organizations receiving public funds would not be allowed to require participants to attend worship services or accept religious teachings. The Los Angeles Mission's overt Christian focus is possible because it is privately funded, raising its $15-million annual budget from a base of 250,000 donors.)
Awakening From 10 Years of Disaster