ELLSWORTH — Mike Caiaccia wears an orange band around his right wrist that says “Stop Heroin.”
Like many Mainers, Caiaccia sees the state as being in the midst of a drug epidemic — one in which heroin plays a central role.
“It is bad,” he said. “It is terrible. People are dying.”
Caiaccia, however, has a firsthand perspective on drugs that not everyone else does. A native of Pittsburgh, he said he shot heroin for the better part of a decade in his hometown and sometimes did up to 50 bags a day.
“I was a walking zombie,” he said.
Then he was introduced to CityReach Church, which started in Pittsburgh in 2010 and now has almost 60 churches in the Eastern United States.
CityReach also operates a smaller number of Hope Homes, which Caiaccia said are faith-based residences designed to help anyone facing a “life-controlling issue,” including drugs or any other kind of addiction.
Though he had no idea where it was, Caiaccia accepted an invitation to come to Bangor and go through the Hope Home there in an effort to kick his heroin habit and get a clean start on life.
In the fall of 2013, he came to Maine and went through the program. Today he says he has been clean for two and a half years and “hasn’t looked back since.” He became part of CityReach and ran the Hope Home in Bangor. He now oversees operations in Ellsworth.
CityReach “planted” 10 churches in the region this fall, including one in Ellsworth. It is located at 27 High St. in an old brick schoolhouse, while the Hope Home in Ellsworth is nearby on Pine Street and opened in October.
The home is actually a small apartment within a larger building and is home to four men and a director. Each of them has his own story of struggling with life-controlling issues, and each of them said finding God and coming to Hope Home has made their life better.
One of them is Josh Rodriguez, who was living in New Hampshire before coming to Maine. He said he was alcoholic and homeless, drifting in and out of jail until a friend introduced him to God and to CityReach.
“They got me a ticket up here and the rest is history,” he said. “I went from drinking every day to loving people.”
Caiaccia said Hope Homes have two phases. The first nine months is called “Transformation.” CityReach said it focuses on “spiritual renewal, discipleship and sobriety through activities such as prayer, church attendance and service to local organizations and churches.”
Rodriguez and his housemates spend time studying the Bible, and Caiaccia showed a recent assignment that involved reading to learn about the word “joyfulness” and how to incorporate that into everyday life.
He is also working on getting them connected with the community, doing work such as shoveling snow or cleaning yards.
Caiaccia said residents always have to be with another resident when they go somewhere, a buddy system of sorts to help keep them on the right track. Rodriguez acknowledged that “sometimes you get a little darkness,” but another housemate explained how being at a Hope Home helps.
“When you have men of God here,” said Craig Taylor, “we can feed off each other and grow stronger in the Lord.”
The home director in Ellsworth is Jermel McWhorter, who is originally from North Carolina. He came to Maine for school but found himself homeless on the streets of Bangor as a result of his alcoholism.
Like Rodriguez, he got connected with CityReach through a friend and said the program changed his life.
CityReach and its Hope Homes are run entirely on donations and financial contributions from partner organizations, according to its website. Caiaccia said it receives no government funding or money from insurance companies.
Residents of the Hope Home are not charged anything for the first phase of the program. The second phase, called “Transition,” lasts four months. During that time, residents are asked to “contribute a small rent to cover their living expenses.”
CityReach and Caiaccia said the goal of the second phase is to teach men how to live independent lives, giving them skills to succeed in the world.
Ellsworth is one of three Hope Homes in Maine for men. There are also two for women in the state. Caiaccia said there is a waiting list to get in, and that CityReach hopes to open more such homes in the future. He also would like to have one for women in Ellsworth.
Caiaccia said the idea is for Hope Home to be another option for people to escape their addictions.
“If we don’t open these doors,” he said, “these guys…”
“I’d probably be dead or in jail,” Rodriguez said.