When a friend told Gregory Turner he looked like Popeye, it wasn't because he was healthy. Heroin injections had distorted his arms until they looked like a cartoon character's.
He overcame that addiction in the 1970s, only to have cocaine destroy his life in the 1980s. By 1988 he was living in the streets.
Turner, now program director for Inner Voice learning center at 1600 W. Lake, says his long exposure to addiction and homelessness gives him a distinct vision of how to help those suffering now. Inner Voice offers an eight-week course that combines training for the GED, job-readiness training, and substance-abuse counseling if needed.
With an estimated 25,000 to 60,000 poor people in Chicago recently dubbed "employable" by the state--making them ineligible for public aid for the last three months of the fiscal year--Turner says it's "crunch time" for the Inner Voice program. "We're about to go into high gear."
Two years ago Turner, now 42, had nothing left. His marriage was among the sacrifices to his habit. "My ex-wife and I are good friends," Turner said. "I call her all the time, but she is still leery of me because I was the devil." He said neither he nor his paycheck made it home much.
When Turner returned to Detroit after seven months in Vietnam in 1969, he was 18 and heroin was prevalent on the streets. He was addicted by the mid-70s. As soon as he realized he was addicted, Turner says, he withdrew to his mother's home with a supply of methadone. He was able to quit and never went back.
He moved to Chicago in 1980 and started working with boys who "were one step away from the penitentiary" at Lawrence Hall Youth Services at 4833 N. Francisco. "I told them about the pitfalls of life," he said. "But I wasn't quite the expert I thought I was because I still had some holes to fall into."
Turner got married on New Year's Eve of 1981. But by 1985 he was back into drugs, this time as a cocaine dealer. By 1987, he says, he was a full-fledged user.
"I stopped working, my marriage was destroyed, everything I accumulated was gone. I had no one left to turn to." He lived in shelters until he began volunteering at Inner Voice in 1989.
Turner maintains that the two keys to climbing out of homelessness or substance abuse are education and finding someone who will take a chance on you. He had a private school education before high school, and received his GED and training as a helicopter mechanic in the Marine Corps. He also took a few courses in pharmacy at Wayne State University in Detroit and in computer science at Truman College in Chicago. His hardworking parents told him to never say die.
"I refuse to lose," Turner says. "The only thing that will defeat me is the same thing that defeats everyone else, and that is death."
His fighting spirit has been tempered, though, with the knowledge that cocaine humbles the confident. Printed on Turner's Narcotics Anonymous key chain in red letters is the warning, "just for today." His last relapse was not that long ago, he says.
"He has combined the horrors of his own experience with his academic awareness to develop ideas on how to help people still caught in the cycle of homelessness and drugs," says Abdullah Hassan, director of the transitional housing program at Inner Voice.
"I know if you want to come and get some clothes so you can sell them for drugs because I've been there," Turner tells his students. "I know if you want to get a food voucher . . . and sell it to get high because I've done that. By the same token, I know when you're ready to commit suicide because you're sick of the way you're living."
"I try to show them it's not so bad," he says. He also helps them meet people who have been able to overcome their addictions.
"Even now, there are people I've know for years, but because they are still in cocaine, I can't associate with them," Turner says. He tries to help the addicts change their choice of friends as part of the process of changing their lives.
"When Greg was still one of the homeless we used to talk," says Reverend Robert Johnson, founder and executive director of Inner Voice. "I told him if he ever got his life together to come back to Inner Voice and we would try some of the things we talked about."
"When we met, I was ready to become a human being again," Turner says. "He showed me he believed in me with his actions, and gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted." What Turner wanted was to design programs for the homeless and substance abusers.
"Most people would have chosen somebody with an alphabet behind their name," Turner says. But Johnson chose Turner, who last year helped draft the grant proposal that allowed the learning center to be built.
A lot of the programs Inner Voice now offers were prompted by Turner's memories. For example, he remembers being attracted to Inner Voice back when it was a daytime drop-in center on West Madison because "they had the best food." So a big pot of chili or stew awaits those who come to the classes now.
He also remembers how when he got addicted he stopped doing the things he enjoyed, like playing basketball. "When you start using drugs, a lot of the things you used to do go by the wayside," he says--like exercise. Turner was able to get 12 exercise machines for the basement of Inner Voice from a defunct health club.
"After the GED class, especially, a lot of the ladies will go down and work out a little bit," he said. He believes exercise promotes self-esteem and helps them stay away from drugs.
He hopes to see more shelters change to accommodate the needs of their clients. "Many social programs are designed with the concerns of the programmer in mind instead of the program," he says. While he was in the shelter, he got a telemarketing job that required him to work until 9 PM, but he had to be in for the night at the shelter by 8:30. By choosing to work he had to forfeit a place to sleep. He ended up building a lean-to out of milk crates in a grove near an expressway. "The only mishap I had was when a spider bit me while I was sleeping and my arm swelled up like a football."
Besides his full-time salaried position at Inner Voice, Turner hosts a Monday-afternoon community forum on WSSD radio, heard on parts of the south side. He also has a call-in talk show on cable TV's channel 21, "Hotline 21," that airs every Monday.
In the little free time he has, Turner likes to read science fiction. "I consider science fiction a possible future," he says. "Look at Jules Verne; anything you can conceive of could happen."
In his ideal world he pictures Inner Voice "factories" that would train the disenfranchised to manufacture some product that could be sold to the public--thus benefiting both workers and consumers.
In the meantime, though, Inner Voice refers people to Basic Economic Neighborhood Development at 7105 S. Artesian, a program sponsored by the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training. Students spend some time in class, and then learn the building trades by renovating buildings in poor neighborhoods. It operates only on the south side now, but Turner is working on setting it up on the west side.
Turner and Johnson have also met with the financial aid director at the City Colleges to arrange for aid for those who want to start their college education. Inner Voice also offers classes in resume writing and interviewing skills.
"To make it work, not just to spout my theories and dogmas from now till doomsday, that's what I want for Inner Voice," Turner says. "We're going to find out if it works by doing it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.