If you want to know how heroin can strip away human dignity, you only need to hear the story of Jenn Mosher.
Pills led to heroin, and for 1½ years the former assistant retail manager chased a habit all the way to a tent in Lawrence, Mass., where Mosher, who was pregnant, lived with her addicted boyfriend.
But if heroin can destroy humans, humanity can destroy heroin. At least that’s how Jim and Lydia O’Leary feel. Today, Mosher lives in the O’Leary family home, a ranch-style house in a quiet Salem neighborhood. She’s one of 13, which includes the four O’Leary children (ages 8 to 14) and another six people.
They are people from streets or couches in Manchester, Lawrence, Mass., and Lowell, Mass. People who have been homeless. People who suffer from addiction. People whose broken spirits need some mending.
They live with a family that refuses to say there is no room at the inn.
“My goal is to be able to take care of my baby and do things on my own again,” said Mosher, who is 33. She has traded the heroin for methadone and her baby is due next month. “I don’t want to be where I was ever again.”
For the past 13 years, the O’Learys have been quietly welcoming broken people into their home. They call them family. They sleep wherever possible in the three-bedroom house.
They find a way to share the 1½ bathrooms. They eat common meals most nights. They worship at the Believers Meeting, the Friday night church service held in the living room.
“It grows on you. You cannot not have faith because of all the good that comes to you here,” said Kristin Rosati, 34. After a failed relationship, Rosati found herself and her 10-year-old daughter sleeping in a car in Manchester. She isn’t a drug user, but the anxiety of homelessness had overwhelmed her, she said.
Every program in Manchester had a waiting list, and a transitional housing program wanted half her income. “Nobody gives you an opportunity to get ahead,” she said.
She found God. She found love. She found stability at the O’Learys' home. Rosati returned to work as an apprentice electrician, and she now lives in a Derry apartment with her month-old son and daughter.
Lydia said the O’Leary family doesn’t charge anyone. Her husband is a plumber. She works at home as a bookkeeper.
“This is the way things really get fixed, when people disrupt their life to fix a problem,” said Craig Chevalier, who runs 1269 Cafe, the downtown Manchester coffee house that operates under the Christian notion that believers should help the downtrodden. The O’Learys preach on the second Sundays at 1269 Cafe.
Lydia said she and her husband started taking in people when a family showed up at the church where they were working.
“You can’t look at a mom who is pregnant, has two babies, living in a car and say ‘Oh well, I hope things go OK for you,’” she said.
She said there are rules. Everyone has to wake up at the same time. The first hour is devoted to chores and breakfast. Then an hour of quiet time, where Bible study is encouraged. Lydia uses the next hour to home school her children, and the guests are expected to work on goals and self-improvement.
Doors have to be open, and no one can isolate themselves in a room.
While guests are required to attend a Wednesday prayer service at a local church and Friday living room services, they aren’t forced to participate or worship.
“Church is not a place or a time. It’s the people,” Jim said.
The O’Learys have had their challenges. A lot of the family’s own money goes to help their guests, but they also have a robust support group. People will leave, return to the streets, and then come back. Recently, a guest’s money was stolen; Lydia shrugs it off.
“You hope it’s not going to happen, but we don’t live for money anyways,” she said. The theft is more a sign the people need help, and the person’s issues have to be worked out.
Their house operates on pandemonium. People come and go. They’ll say a few words, then go off to eat or watch a TV show. Rosati’s newborn gets passed around like the most wanted gift at a Yankee swap Christmas party. The kids giggle among themselves.
There are a lot of faith-based programs that close up shop at 5 p.m. and go home for the night. Not this place.
The O’Learys credit the success to God.
“I was surrounded by people who would only give you love for a price,” said Melissa Cobin, 25, who gave birth while living at the O’Learys. She went back to drugs, but Lydia convinced Cobin to let the O’Learys raise her son. She eventually went through rehab at the New Life Home in Manchester.
She says she’s sober now for more than 2½ years and now lives in an apartment with her son. “They make you feel like you care — and they care about you — that you have this extraordinary purpose in life.”