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March 23, 2007
Now, only addiction is to success

by Clem Richardson
Brian Meade is a tough guy and a fighter.

Like most tough guys, this is not something you can tell by looking at Meade, 48, who spends his days doing counseling and helping schoolchildren with their homework at CharRosa Foundation, a nonprofit on Linden Blvd. in Cambria Heights, Queens.

He's working on a bachelor's degree in human services at New York City College of Technology, and hopes to follow it with a master's.

"I love my job," Meade said over lunch. "I love what I do, helping the kids."

He was living a far different life two decades ago, when his crack habit caused Meade's parents to kick him out of their Starrett City, Brooklyn, home. Like many addicts, Meade spent time living on the street. He also did a mercifully short stint in prison, on a burglary charge.

That charge - Meade admits that he was a lookout for older pals as they burglarized an apartment - cost him a possible career in the U.S. Army.

Between the drugs and his rehabilitation was the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing & Able program, which helps provide work, housing and rehabilitation for homeless people.

Last night, Meade was a featured speaker at the Doe Fund's annual graduation ceremony.

"Ready, Willing & Able helped me build my confidence, get my life back on track, move on, stay stable and grow," Meade wrote in his speech. "I know I wouldn't be where I'm at today without it."

Meade was born in the Bronx - like most Bronxites of his day, he takes care to explain that he was born in "the old Lincoln Hospital."

The family moved to the Tilden Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in the early 1960s.

"We moved there as soon as they opened," Meade said. "I grew up with [New York Mets manager Willie Randolph's] brother. In fact, my mother [Julia Meade] showed his mother around the city when they moved here from down South."

By the time the 1960s ended, heroin had swept through the projects. Meade remembers having to step over people passed out in the stairwells, needles still sticking out of their arms.

Drugs were, in fact, ever present. Often, Meade would journey to Harlem with his father, Richard, who played in a baseball league there on the weekends.

Afterward, they would go to a nearby bar, where Meade got to watch adults getting drunk and doing drugs in the bathroom. "My mother always told my father to bring me home right after the game," Meade said. Home wasn't exactly clear, either - Meade shared a room with an older stepbrother who used to sniff the glue that came with the model airplane kits their parents brought them.

The brother would eventually move on to cocaine and heroin - and he and a sister would lose their lives to drugs, Meade said. By the time gangs such as the Jolly Stompers, the Tomahawks, and the Black Spades swept through Brooklyn in the early 1970s, Meade was smoking weed.

"You know the story. Gang guys lived in the building; the leader lived across the street from us," Meade said. "You had to join the gang or you got beat up every day."

The family moved to Starrett City in 1975. His parents were adamant that Meade stay in school and graduate - he got beaten, the old-fashioned, now outlawed beating with a belt or whatever was handy - whenever he cut class.

That's how he came to graduate from Canarsie High School in 1979 and enrolled in a Manhattan business school, planning a career as an accountant.

By this time, Meade was dabbling in harder drugs. A friend talked him into being a lookout while he and another friend robbed an apartment.

When the burglars were caught, they eventually ratted each other out - and named Meade as an accomplice. The shame of it was that by this time Meade had taken a positive step toward a new future by dropping drugs and joining the Army.

But when the burglary case came up, Police Department detectives were dispatched to Fort Jackson in South Carolina to snatch him out of basic training and bring him back to court.

He got two years.

Crack was sweeping through Brooklyn when Meade got out of prison in 1985. He was hooked from his first puff that year, and stayed hooked until 1990.

Tired of his stealing from them to buy crack, his parents kicked him out. First he lived in the stairwells of his parents' building, but finally he took to sleeping on subway trains and in vacant buildings. He worked as a squeegee man.

Luckily, some friends saw Meade and got him into a program in 1990. He was clean for a decade, even moving in with a girlfriend and fathering a daughter with her.

But the pressures of life drove him back to crack. In 2000, he started smoking again. He quickly lost a food services job at JFK Airport, his girlfriend and access to his daughter.

Fortunately someone pointed Meade to Ready, Willing & Able. Before finding the CharRosa job, he was one of those men you see sweeping the streets all day long. At one time, he and several other former drug users shared a house with no heat or hot water - during the winter - and didn't go back to using.

Last night, Meade delivered the graduation address at the Doe Fund's ceremony at Wallace Hall, Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan, while also hearing some very uplifting words.

"Brian Meade and the nearly 3,000 other formerly homeless and incarcerated men who have graduated from Ready, Willing & Able speak to the incredible potential of all human beings and their desire to take personal responsibility for their lives and futures," said George McDon-ald, Doe Fund founder.

"Brian did the hard work. Not only did he rebuild his own life while pushing that bucket and sweeping our streets, but he provided an invaluable service to our city and improved the quality of life for all of us who live and work here."


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