Paving the road to recovery
When men come to the Coalition seeking shelter, support and help to overcome their addiction, it’s likely they’ll meet Johnny Little. Johnny, an addiction recovery specialist at the Men’s Service Center, has the challenging job of telling men what he says they don’t often want to hear: the truth.
But his words carry a little more weight than if that advice were coming from anyone else. Like the men in First Steps, the Coalition’s substance abuse program, Johnny was a once a homeless addict. For the past 20 years, he’s dedicated his life to helping others battle their addiction.
“You’re only as sick as the secrets you keep,” Johnny said of his experiences. “I have no secrets to keep.”
Born in Montgomery, Ala., Johnny grew up in an Air Force family that lived in Germany, England, Oklahoma and California. He planned to audition for Alabama State University’s music school, but instead enlisted in the army.
For two years, Johnny served in Vietnam as a gunner on a helicopter.
“That changed my mind about staying in the military,” Johnny said. “I didn’t want any more war.”
He returned home to Alabama, but the combat he’d seen in Vietnam impacted him in a way he wouldn’t realize until later in life. Johnny began using heroin, and was soon jailed for possession. In prison, he met fellow soldiers, also in for drug charges. “We watched each other’s backs, just like we did when we were in Vietnam,” said Johnny.
When he got out on parole, he majored in Criminal Justice at Alabama State. His first job as a counselor in a community correctional facility offered him no fulfillment.
His next job, tracking inventory for AT&T, was a lucrative one that allowed him to travel. For years, he said, he was a functioning addict, but he started missing days at work. Johnny began seeing a counselor, who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder and sent him to a PTSD program in Tampa.
However, as he put it, he “went into treatment for all the wrong reasons,” or just to keep his job. Johnny started using again when he moved to Orlando and ended up homeless. He considered staying at the old Men’s Pavilion, but preferred sleeping in his car.
When Johnny landed in jail again for possession, he decided he’d had enough. Inexplicably, there was no record of his arrest, so his case was thrown out. He took the advice of a friend to heart: “Sometimes things can be in front of them, but your higher power has a way of making them blind to it. There might be something you’re supposed to do.”
This time, when he left jail, he stayed clean. Johnny began attending NA meetings, and eventually chaired meetings for 18 months before landing a job at the Coalition as an RA at the Men’s Pavilion.
“Everything is a learning process. And sometimes we choose the wrong direction, but as you go along, it works out in the end,” Johnny said.
A number of the men who came to stay for the night were in the situation Johnny was in several months before: homeless, and struggling with addiction. Why, he wondered, did the Coalition not have an addiction program to serve them?
That was 19 years ago. Johnny ended up developing the first-ever drug abuse program for the men at the Pavilion. Today, that program is known as First Steps and serves 50 residents at the new Men’s Service Center.
Over the years, men who have gone through First Steps still call and visit Johnny. That, he said, is the most gratifying part of his job: knowing that he’s helped someone. He stresses, though, that the residents do the important work of turning their lives around. “I’m just the guy who keeps them on track.”
It’s because of Johnny’s experiences, and his willingness to help others, that he’s made such an impact today on the men in First Steps. His main piece of advice to them is this: When you come here, don’t come here looking to stay. Come here preparing yourself to leave.
“You also have to get honest with yourself, and be open minded to new ideas and open minded enough to think that when people are talking to you and giving you advice, they’re not trying to tell you how to live your life,” he said. “They’re trying to get you to start looking at it, so you can make the necessary changes.”