Wes Vent has been spending his one free day a week helping homeless people because he doesn't want to be a criminal and drug addict anymore.
Vent is wearing an ankle monitor and living in transitional housing. He works in construction. A few weeks ago, he joined Chris Pruitt, his treatment peer teacher, giving away warm coats, hats and socks to people living on the city's wintry streets.
He was energized. He had the idea of giving away first-aid supplies, snacks and feminine hygiene products. They met again the next Saturday, another frigid morning, next to Pruitt's pickup at the Brother Francis Shelter, with 100 bags containing about $600 worth of supplies.
A line rapidly formed. There were smiles, hugs and God-bless-yous. The bags were gone in 10 minutes.
Vent and Pruitt beamed.
"That was a beautiful experience," Pruitt said.
As the ragged homeless crowd shuffled off to another day in the cold, the men got back in the truck to warm up.
They both know what it's like out there. Pruitt once spent months on the street, grabbing warm sleep 20 minutes at a time in stairwells and laundry rooms.
"You just want to die. You don't believe anyone cares about you," he said. "I would have loved this."
Vent said, "Getting a new pair of socks is priceless. You know how cold it is out there?"
Vent's life began with trouble. He went to foster care at six months old, as he told me.
He said he ran away at 12 and has been on his own since. In court records, his list of mostly minor criminal offenses fills a couple of pages. He is 32.
"Homelessness has been a struggle in my life from the beginning," he said. "I've had a life of trying and failing, trying and failing."
Pruitt, 47, spent his adult life — 29 years — in jail or under court supervision, until his last sentence ran out a year ago. He said he comes from a good family, with successful siblings, but he was a cocaine addict.
He decided to change when his mother had a stroke and he couldn't help her because he was in jail. He has been clean and sober since 2012. His mother came out to the coat giveaway.
The treatment that worked for Pruitt is what he has taught Vent as a peer volunteer.
They met when they were both working in construction. Vent was still using drugs and got arrested for theft in 2014. When he got out he went into Pruitt's class. He didn't want to do it, but the treatment began to show him new possibilities.
"You could tell he wanted something different. He didn't want to be a drug addict. So he pushed very hard in this program," Pruitt said. "Once we got to the giving and helping others part of it, it was just night and day."
He said, "Addiction is very selfish. It is take-take-take and don't worry about the bodies left behind."
Vent said Pruitt has become his brother.
Through giving, he believes he is learning to stay off heroin, hold onto his job and regain custody of his children. A judge last week gave him another five months to prove he can do it, Vent said.
"How do I believe that I'm capable of living a normal life?" he said. "I've tried really hard to grow up."
The next weekend the men drove around Anchorage for a day handing out sack lunches. Instead of going to the shelter, they stopped on corners where homeless men and women stand with signs. Along with the sandwiches they gave advice on how to get clean and off the streets. And they offered to pray.
Vent knows some of those he helps from his own days on the street.
They will do the work again this weekend. On Sunday at 9 a.m., they will help with a breakfast for the homeless at First CME Church at 3600 MacInnes St. (Pruitt said they still need donations of bacon.)
This charity is informal. There is no program, just guys who need to do something for others so they can feel good about themselves.
I met Pruitt at the Anchorage Opioid Task Force, a volunteer group led by an addict's mother that gathers in a church basement on Lake Otis Parkway. He networked for donations.
What struck me profoundly at the meeting and afterward was the determined morality of every conversation. Speakers took responsibility for their flaws and errors and reached out intentionally to help one another.
It was bracing to listen to people holding themselves accountable, being moral. Pruitt said it almost becomes a competition.
We don't normally talk that way. I began listening for accountability during the rest of my day. I talk to politicians and business people all the time. I heard more blame than responsibility.
Are recovering addicts the moral people in our society? Is the drug epidemic a moral crisis?
The training that turned around Pruitt and Vent is called Moral Reconation Training, a model used in prisons all over the U.S. It combines cognitive behavioral therapy to correct thinking errors with ethical lessons similar to a 12-step program.
Clients are forced to recognize the bad things they've done and to accept responsibility. The program is based on the idea that punishment, counseling and job training won't help unless an offender learns the reasoning skills to judge right and wrong.
Solving the drug epidemic will take more than clinical beds to detoxify addicts or prison beds to contain them. Recovery is a lifelong process of moving into a new moral and social space, one where a good life makes escape to drugs unnecessary.
For Pruitt and Vent, that better life is found in the pleasure of helping those who are still in the bad place they are leaving behind.
"When you give to other people, your heart just amplifies," Pruitt said. "Give to the community and don't expect anything back in return. That's what life's all about."
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