Pep Talks

In recovery, out in the field, members of the Partnership to Empower Parents reach out to Miami's drug-dependent mothers

As the sun bakes their blue Nissan Sentra, Peg and Pepper cruise the streets of Perrine on a weekday afternoon in search of Janet, an angry crack addict who suspects she is HIV-positive. With Peg behind the wheel and Pepper riding shotgun, they drive up and down streets dotted with single-lot homes, each with its own small front yard. Finally they spot Janet standing outside a house, smoking a cigarette and cradling a beautiful little girl: her daughter, still a toddler. Peg pulls the car over to the curb to talk to Janet, who's dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans.

"I plan to give it to every nigger I can," Janet tells the pair with a snarl, referring to her HIV.

Pepper, who is HIV-positive herself, tries to reassure Janet that she probably has only the virus, and not full-blown AIDS. Essentially homeless, Janet, twenty years old, stays with friends or with her grandmother in Perrine. Remembering when Peg hung around her neighborhood begging for money and drugs, Janet tells her, "You needed help."

"I did," Peg casually admits. "So when are you gonna get treatment?"
"Monday I'll get treatment," Janet says. Her eyes start to water as she tells Peg and Pepper that she thinks she's pregnant, going on somewhat melodramatically about how, three weeks earlier, she'd tried to kill herself with an overdose of pills because of problems with her boyfriend. "Then, I thought, 'Shit, that's a man,'" Janet snuffles, beads of sweat forming on her forehead, her gold-capped tooth gleaming in the sunlight.

As Janet turns and walks away, Peg starts the car and the pair sets off in search of another client. "Every week we see her she says she's pregnant," Peg notes. "Then the next week she'll say she had a miscarriage."

Four years ago no one would have believed that Peg -- or, for that matter, Pepper -- would be out on the streets of South Dade counseling crack-addicted mothers as part of an outreach team for the Partnership to Empower Parents (PEP), a federally funded program that employs former addicts to help rehabilitate its clients. That's because four years ago Peg was a crack mother who lived on those very streets. For almost a decade, she was a homeless addict who turned tricks and bummed money to support her habit; additionally she was arrested many times on drug charges. Back then she lived day to day, wandering around in ragged clothes, barefoot, her eyes glassy. "She was a jungle animal in the city," remembers Madison James Carter, program director at the Better Way residential treatment center in Northwest Miami and PEP's former drug-treatment coordinator. "This lady should've been dead a thousand times over."

Now 35 years old and very much alive, Peg (unless surnames are provided, all of the names in this story have been changed) stands five feet nine inches tall, with scars on her face, her left leg, and left arm. Wearing a sporty beige-striped blouse-and-shorts combination and loads of jewelry -- bracelets, earrings, a gold watch -- she usually has a somewhat intimidating demeanor. And yet she exhibits a child's enthusiasm for relating the stories behind her scars, nonchalantly attributing all of them to injuries she sustained while fighting. She says she got the two-and-a-half inch one on her left cheek while sitting in a car minding her own business. Out of nowhere, she says, a woman slashed her with a razor. Peg began fighting with her, too high to notice the gushing blood. The woman also tried to cut Peg underneath her skirt, she says, but the pair of denim shorts she was wearing beneath the skirt protected her.

The scars on her left forearm and thigh are the result of bullet wounds inflicted, she claims, during a fight with her older sister (who eventually died from complications related to AIDS). Both high at the time, they began arguing when the sister found out that Peg, who was pregnant, had spent money meant for drugs on baby clothes. Peg says she shoved her sister "out of her shoes" and into a wall. Her sister responded by whipping a handgun from her purse. As the two continued to struggle, the gun went off accidentally, with a bullet entering Peg's forearm, then exiting and lodging in her thigh. Later, Peg recounts with no emotion, as if she has related the story a thousand times before, when a bullet fragment rose to the surface of her arm, she plucked it out herself. None of the scars, she insists, is the result of injecting drugs. "Crack was my first choice," she recalls, lighting up a cigarette, "and I stuck with that."

Peg's rescue from a life of self-destruction began four years ago when Gloria Thomas, a 57-year-old social worker with the Metro-Dade Department of Youth and Family Development (the agency that ran the PEP program at the time), was first assigned Peg's case. Thomas went to Peg's house in Goulds, where Peg lived with her mother, her brother, and several of her children, as well as some of her two sisters' children. Thomas learned from Peg's mother that Peg had left just minutes before. Peg's mother gave Thomas a description of her daughter's attire -- shorts, halter top, beret -- and the social worker set off to find her, cruising South Dade's decrepit neighborhoods in her white Ford Crown Victoria.

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