Despite neighborhood changes, Mariners Inn holds fast to its mission to provide safe harbor for those struggling with addiction
Mornings at the Mariners Inn shelter and treatment center begin with a song. In a call-and-response fashion, the men in residence sing:
“We are soldiers! (What?) We in the army! (What?) We gotta fight! (Ohh, ohh, ohh!) Until we die. (We gotta hold!) We gotta hold up the bloodstained banner. (We gotta hold!) We gotta hold it up until we die.”
The “Soldier’s Song,” as it’s known at the shelter, serves as an anthem of solidarity, uniting the men throughout lifelong battles with addiction.
It’s a battle that 22-year-old Marc Tuccini, a former drug addict who has undergone Mariners Inn’s 90-day program twice, knows well.
“Mariners Inn is not a program of 30 days or 90 days or two years or five years,” Tuccini says. “It is a lifelong community of brotherhood and understanding love for each other.”
Nowadays, the “Soldiers Song” doesn’t only encapsulate the solidarity of the men in the Mariners Inn community, but also the shelter itself.
Its roots go back to 1842, when Mariners’ Church of Detroit was established and its nuns transformed the basement into lodging for those in need. The operation moved to Ledyard Street in 1955.
Today, directly across the street, just beyond Cass Avenue, the skeletons of the Little Caesars Arena and the District Detroit represent eminent and drastic changes to the Cass Corridor community that Mariners Inn has called home for over 60 years.
Despite the new view, Mariners Inn staff have taken the changes in stride, maintaining their desire to provide housing and substance abuse treatment services at the same location for as long as they can.
For people like Tuccini, those services have made all the difference.
“I lived a terrible, destructive life and I hated myself for it every single, f---ing minute,” Tuccini says. “The only thing I wanted was to come home to Mariners.”
Shelter From the Storm
Mariners’ Church of Detroit was established in the name of Great Lakes sailors. A transformed basement drew in the poor as well as seaport sailors docking on the Detroit River. The church’s nuns provided food and shelter, helped individuals find greater spirituality, and encouraged the men to help themselves by drinking less.
The Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, headquartered at Mariners’ Church, officially embraced the nuns’ work in 1925 and formed the Detroit Protestant Episcopal City Mission Society. Following the end of Prohibition, the Board of Trustees of Mariners’ Church revamped a building on Griswold and dubbed it Mariners Inn.
Today, Mariners Inn is a nonprofit agency, a nationally recognized substance abuse treatment and recovery center, and one of Detroit’s model programs for the alleviation of homelessness and addiction.
In 2015 alone, 779 men came to Mariners Inn for recovery and 495 volunteers joined its staff. According to Mariners Inn CEO David Sampson, the center’s longevity and popularity is grounded by the staff’s belief in the men that they serve.
“What I believe in here — and what I believe is so important, more so than anything — is that recovery is real and that the people we serve are not throwaway people,” Sampson says. “They deserve a chance and an opportunity.”
Sampson himself is no stranger to addiction; the disease runs in his family. While Sampson himself has been clean and sober for 29 years now, his sister died as a result of her substance abuse at the intersection of Willis and Canfield, down the street from Mariners Inn.
As downtown redevelopment efforts seek to change the Midtown landscape, Sampson’s aim is to develop alongside the burgeoning community, as opposed to getting swallowed up by developers.
“If you ask all of the developers and the business folks and all of that, I’m sure that they’d have something different to say,” Sampson says. “But selfishly, I believe yes, we can assimilate anywhere, because that’s what we prepare our guys to do. You can try to hide it all you want, there’s going to be a need for (services like) this, absolutely.”
In April, The Detroit City Council voted to exclude Mariners Inn from the Cass Park Historic District, a proposition to preserve historic buildings within The District Detroit area. For Mariners Inn, historical classification would have meant statutes that prevented tearing down the building or altering its appearance. In a statement issued shortly after the decision, Sampson wrote that he was satisfied with the choice to exclude Mariners Inn from the district.
“The decision removes the uncertainty of being able to explore and control our own destiny in terms of the future,” Sampson wrote. “We remain steadfast and committed to continuing to provide the services that enable us to help save lives.”
Sampson says exclusion from the Historic District still works in the treatment center’s benefit. “We just didn’t want to put ourselves in a cubbyhole, so to speak,” he says. “Not to be able to do things without extra barriers or red tape, and that happens when you get designated as historical. You have so many hoops to jump through in order to just make improvements to what you already have.”
A Sea of Services
Currently, Mariners Inn offers a swath of programs for the men ages 18 and up who come through its doors. Most enter through the Residential Treatment Program, in which they can sign up for 90 days in-house, while some — young men ages 18 to 29 — are in the Residential Youth Prevention Program, completing 90 days. Others opt to receive outpatient services.
A typical day is filled with group sessions like Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and anger management. Members take meetings with counselors and recovery coaches, but there’s also opportunity to engage in productive activities and projects of one’s choice, from music classes to urban gardening.
The plants sitting out in the lobby are more than just décor. They’re doted on by Andre Iler, 48. It’s been his mission to help bring them back to optimal health.
Iler entered Mariners Inn in April 2016 after he found himself homeless as a result of his drug habits. He had lost so much weight he couldn’t look at himself.
“I had the same clothes on for like two weeks and that was just it,” Iler says. “I was just tired and I didn’t want to live like that anymore.”
After his first 30 days at Mariners Inn, Iler relapsed. He got up, left, and decided to get high again. Then, his counselor called him, asked what he was doing, and told him he was always welcome to come back.
“Ever since then it’s been a struggle, but Mariners Inn is such a loving environment,” Iler says. “They really care about you here. I was so embarrassed and hurt, not for myself, but people had so much hope and confidence in me. … I was more hurt for them than I was for myself.”
Mariners Inn’s Second Chance Program is perhaps one of the organization’s most helpful initiatives. The program allows clients that relapse to restart their program, enter a more intensive phase of treatment, and gain the support needed to address the underlying causes of their drug use. Clients develop a relapse prevention plan and get assigned to peer support and art therapy groups, as well as a peer coach who will help them through episodes that may cause another relapse.
“There used to be a time where if you used drugs and alcohol while in a drug treatment center, they would kick you out,” Sampson says. “My thought is, well, why are we kicking people out for the very reason they’re coming to us in the first place? ... For us, if you come back to us with the willingness and the desire to get clean and sober, I don’t care if you do it a hundred times because that hundredth time might be the one you get it and you stay clean and sober for a long period of time.”
Iler isn’t the only one who’s benefited from Mariners Inn’s Second Chance Program.
Tuccini says he was 12 when he first used mind-altering substances and 16 when he first used heroin. He first came to Mariners Inn in late 2014.
“I was living on the street, and sometimes in seedy motels with my then-girlfriend. Day to day was just hustling to get money to get high and survive,” Tuccini says.
Tuccini completed the 90-day residential program and stayed in the facility’s Transitional Housing for a couple of months, but upon hearing about the suicide of a friend, Tuccini relapsed. He left his job and bought a one-way bus ticket to Los Angeles, where he found himself swept up in the city’s gang culture. Eventually, he returned to Detroit and Mariners Inn, vowing to take full advantage of every opportunity he could at the shelter.
“I finally understood the extremity of the pain I was up against, dating all the way back to my childhood, and it was scarier than any gang killing I’ve ever seen,” Tuccini says. “I didn’t know how to address it; I just knew I wasn’t going to distract myself from it anymore.”
Looking to the future, Tuccini says he has a drive for social justice and sees himself helping others. He also dreams of traveling the world with his son.
“Life is still there, kiddo. Everything isn’t always unicorns and f---ing rainbows, but life is easier,” he says. “Life is full of ups and downs. I’ve just learned how to finally not let them control me anymore.”
As Mariners Inn remains moored at Ledyard Street, it too faces ups and downs. But as the surrounding neighborhood enters a new chapter, Sampson views the community changes as opportunities.
“Our folks have been so used to the dregs, the doldrums, the unemployment, the poverty, dysfunctional family situations, separation,” he says. “Why not have an opportunity now for employment, for long-term sobriety through partnerships and relationships, for accessibility to entertainment?”
If anyone knows a thing or two about opportunities and comebacks, it’s Sampson, his staff, and their Mariners men.