Nonprofit Leader Finds Redemption in Charity Work
Larry Griffin, head of We Care and Friends, was a drug addict for 28 years.
A tale of two cities.
That’s how Larry Griffin has long described his hometown of Annapolis.
The 62-year-old founder of We Care and Friends—which aids the homeless, former criminals and addicts—knows both tales well.
Prior to forming the nonprofit organization in 1990, Griffin spent 28 years battling his own addictions and two years living on the streets of the ritzy Maryland capital.
"When you look at Annapolis, you think of this as a nice place," he said. "Got some money, it's historic. But there is a thing of a tale of two cities here. The ones that don't have it and the ones who do."
And Griffin's load is likely to get much worse.
Homeless Needs Grow
Nationally, homeless figures have stayed fairly stable from 2009 and 2011, according to a report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. However, as federal stimulus funds such as those from The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program quickly deplete, advocates worry that the nation may be on the brink of a homelessness epidemic.
Steve Berg, vice president of the alliance, said some communities are already feeling the effects.
"It's a big concern," Berg said. "Historically, high unemployment results in a higher number of homeless. We've avoided it so far with this recession but that probably won't last much longer."
Despite the increasing needs of the homeless—and having already been at it for more than two decades—Griffin said he would continue to fight for the downtrodden in his community as long as he is able.
'Every Drug You Can Name'
Growing up in Annapolis’ Eastport neighborhood, Griffin had a fairly typical childhood. He had dabbled with marijuana and cheap beer but still felt in control of his life—until he entered the music scene.
"I learned about every drug you can name," said Griffin, a percussionist.
He vividly recalls a particularly bad trip while on PCP, a hallucinogenic.
"It takes you to another world," he said. "I was on stage at a concert, and it looked like I had 20 drums in front of me."
As his life continued on a downward spiral, he lost his ties with loved ones who could no longer cope with his addictions. Shortly afterward, he found himself homeless.
"I was everywhere," he said. "I slept at a boatyard, in dumpsters and telephone booths. I worked out of a crack house. You think that you can survive it, but you can't."
Griffin added that he probably had it easier than most other homeless people because, as someone who had previously worked at local restaurants, he was always well fed by his former employers. He eventually got a job as a cook and entered a rehab program.
"After I got out, I spent two years taking inventory of my life," Griffin said.
Pointing to the sky, he said, "Dr. G saved me, and I knew I needed to do good. He turned my life around."
Clients Struggle to Find Work
The biggest struggle Griffin faces at the nonprofit is finding jobs for his clients. He recounts a story of one man who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees while serving time for a series of thefts.
"I know these folks that get out of jail—they've already been punished. I know, I've been there too," he said. "If you have a record, [employers] won't hire you."
Griffin said the man had inquired about job opportunities at 40 places in one week.
"He was willing to take anything," Griffin said. "He had a master's degree but would have worked as a dishwasher. He was a smart kid. After months of hearing 'no, no, no,' he killed himself."
According to City-Data.com, 17.5 percent of Annapolis residents lived below the poverty level in 2009. This is nearly double the Maryland average of 9.1 percent.
Griffin, like many of his clients, also struggles to stay financially afloat. Although he runs We Care and Friends full time, he receives no income from the nonprofit, according to its federal tax filings for 2010. He makes ends meet by performing with national musical acts such as Carlos Santana, catering jobs and working security.
"But that money's getting low now," he said with a laugh.
However, his efforts have certainly paid off for the people the organization has helped.
In 2008, We Care and Friends raised $40,000. By 2010 the group’s gifts, grants and contributions had increased to $188,000, according to its 2010 tax form filed with the IRS.
Griffin's Efforts Praised
Russell Tinker, 30, recently started getting his life back on track by working with Griffin.
"My life is nowhere near peaches and cream," Tinker said. "I need help right now. I'm trying to get back to the top and I'm starting at the bottom."
Tinker, who had first met Griffin years ago, said the nonprofit leader is different from others who claim to help those in need.
"I like Mr. Larry a lot," Tinker said. "Some people who help out, they're about the news cameras and seeing their names on TV. He's made me realize that there are people out there trying to do good."
Annapolis Police Chief Michael Pristoop said that although there is no "one shot" approach to reducing crime, programs aimed at fighting addiction can be helpful. He added that the city's crime figures are now on average half of what they were just five years ago.
"I know that Larry Griffin is a good citizen and obviously dedicated to his work," Pristoop said. "The police department is supportive of these efforts."
For his part, Griffin said his work with the nonprofit is about redemption.
"I've played the good, bad and the ugly," he said. "I'm working to be back to good now."
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.