03/03/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Heroin rotted most of his teeth and needles dug craters in his skin. "Most of my track marks have healed, except this one," says Rev. Lonnie Davis Sr., pointing to a scar on his neck. "That was from a 3 cc needle. I tell people that's where the devil sucked me."
The devil has no hold on Davis anymore. A former drug addict with a $600-a-day heroin habit, Davis, 51, performed something close to a miracle by transforming five crumbling, mismanaged homeless shelters in Baltimore into models of cleanliness and organization. Nicknamed Rev. Fix It Up, he got rid of bullying staffers, upgraded the food program and added financial and housing counselors—services that were hard to find in existing shelters. And he did it all on the bleak streets of Baltimore, so plagued by drugs and homelessness that in 1999 it was unofficially named one of the most addicted cities in the nation. "He is showing that you can, in fact, change the world for the better," says Baltimore's Mayor Martin O'Malley. "I hope when people see his example, they realize there is no such thing as a spare American."
Davis has succeeded where so many others failed because of his keen entrepreneurial instincts—he studied business administration before drugs consumed his life—and the power of his own personal story. "He gave me a
positive attitude because he came clean, and that inspires me," says Tim Curry, 46, a former crack addict who spent 13 months at one shelter before being hired as an office assistant at Davis's I Can Inc., the nonprofit group that operates the shelters. For all his empathy, Davis is convinced that the road to salvation is for people to take charge of their own lives; at his shelters he strongly encourages residents to apply for jobs and search for apartments. "Homelessness is lovelessness," says Davis, noting that most shelter residents lacked fathers growing up. "Many social workers have a bleeding-heart mentality, but these people need love, not charity. It's a small difference but an important one."
Davis knows what it's like to grow up without a father. Born in East Baltimore to Hazel Hall, a 17-year-old single mother, he and younger sister Diane were raised by their grandmother Eunice Davis, now 91. Davis joined the Navy Reserves after graduating from high school and was stationed near Thailand, where he tried heroin for the first time. Back home in 1974, he went to work for a local telephone company as an installer and married his first wife, Robin, with whom he had a daughter, Laquisha. (He already had a son, Lonnie Jr., from a previous relationship.) Despite being promoted, Davis stole copper wire at work to make money to buy heroin, which he sold on the street. He was fired and began selling even more drugs, and before long he was an addict himself. In 1980 his wife divorced him. "For 13 years," he says, "I was a zombie."
Only after overdosing in 1993 did Davis kick heroin at a VA center near Baltimore. He lived for three years in a shelter run by American Rescue Workers, which hired him to manage its thrift shop. In 1993 city officials asked ARW to take over a shelter; Davis, who studied business administration at a community college while at the telephone company, got the job.
He quickly proved himself a stickler for detail and efficiency. When the shelter reopened a few months later, Baltimore officials took notice and turned four more shelters over to Davis. He now serves thousands of residents a year, with more than half of those involved in his housing program eventually landing their own apartments. "It was like night and day," says Alex Boston, director of Baltimore's Office of Homeless Services, of one shelter Davis took over and transformed. "What he brought was a commitment to serve the homeless that goes beyond the average provider."
At I Can, Davis, who became a non-denominational minister in 1995, surrounds himself with family. His wife, Pamela, 47, a former social worker (they married in 1997 and live in a three-bedroom colonial house in Mitchellville, a Baltimore suburb) is the director of I Can's emergency shelter; Laquisha, 27, is an office manager, and Lonnie Jr., 33, is I Can's chief financial officer. "He's been through a lot, and he's learned a lot," says Lonnie Jr., who didn't see much of his dad growing up but is happy to spend time with him now. "He never gave up on himself."
Today Davis doesn't try to hide his past; he knows his sins are what make him such an inspiration to others. "A lot of guys knew me when I was homeless and now look up to me," says the man who wanted nothing more than to be a good dad. "To a lot of them, I have become like a father."
Christianna McCausland in Baltimore