It’s the season of hope, of lights in the darkness, of looking for small signs and wonders. Redemption comes later. Nobody knows that better than the small group gathered in the living room of this apartment house on a worn-out block of Angier Avenue in Durham. The building used to be a popular haunt for drug dealers and prostitutes. Now, it’s a halfway house for recovering drug users. It’s a Tuesday night and residents are holding one of their regular house meetings. Hope is like a frayed rope that everyone in the room is trying hard not to let go of.

The eight men and two women present have been out all day working at jobs, doing volunteer shifts, attending 12-step meetings or looking for work. It’s a house rule that residents must be out by 8:30 a.m. each day, making good-faith efforts to contribute their share of the monthly rent. (The other major requirement for occupancy is that they don’t use or possess drugs).

They talk about the phone that’s going to be installed soon, about holiday plans to visit with family, and about how to get along better as a group, given the varying points individuals have reached in their recovery.

It’s a hard road, acknowledges Karen Moore, the organization’s house manager, who’s been clean for eight months. “You’re here to learn how to live all over again,” she says.

Doris, a thin woman in a knitted cap, shyly announces that she’s found a job at a local chain restaurant. “I had to do a lot of walking,” she says. “I thought I was going to have to leave here and I didn’t want to have to start over.”

Greg, a young man in a gray duffel coat, didn’t get quite so far. “Where I’m at today is just learning to accept,” he says. “I just thank God for allowing me to stay clean for another day.”

The financial report is next.

“That’s simple,” says Dennis Garrett, Love and Respect’s founder and director. “We took in this amount (his arm goes up to waist level), paid out this amount (shoulder level) and we owe this amount (above his head).”

By way of further explanation, he goes around the circle asking each person, “How much money did you have when you came here?”

“Zero,” says one.

“Double zero,” says another.

“My check’s in the mail,” says the home’s newest resident, as the room erupts in knowing laughter

Garrett has traveled his own hard road. After graduating from Chapel Hill High School in 1981, he served three years in the military, then did time in prison on drug-selling charges.

In prison, Garrett kicked his drug habit. After he got out, he lived in a halfway house in High Point and started working for similar homes in the Triad and Chapel Hill. He made contacts with social service agencies and veterans groups, and began dreaming about setting up his own program.

Last spring, Garrett met Sam Roberti, a local attorney and fellow veteran who was having trouble keeping paying tenants in a building he’d bought in northeast Durham. Garrett took over the rent, and in June, opened a 16-bed haven for recovering drug users modeled on programs that had helped him.

Social service leaders say places like Love and Respect are sorely needed in the Triangle because there are so few options for people struggling with addiction or just out of prison. “It’s ironic that the number one health problem in the City of Medicine is being treated in the county jail,” says Al Mooney, the new medical director for the Durham Center, which oversees the county’s mental health programs. “The people most in need are being marginalized. What we’d like to do is nourish a culture of recovery. Unlike other medical illnesses, addiction requires people to recover in all facets of their life–physical, mental and spiritual.”

Garrett says Love and Respect is a way to support people the community has turned its back on. It’s also an important part of his own recovery–a way, he says, to “help out in the streets I’d been so busy destroying.”

The household is meant to be self-sustaining. But currently, Garrett is subsidizing residents who can’t come up with the rent with money from his disability checks and his family. He’s applied for tax-exempt status so Love and Respect can start submitting grant applications and soliciting donations on a wider scale.

Garrett is the first to say he doesn’t fit the mold of a typical nonprofit leader. His appearance is more street than social worker. He still drives a Jaguar he says his mom bought him as a gift when he celebrated four years off drugs.

Garrett says his background gives him credibility with people at the toughest end of the recovery spectrum. “I can’t go to people in a suit and tie,” he says. “They wouldn’t listen then.”

Clay Everett, manager of Second Chance halfway house on East Club Boulevard, worked with Garrett at a similar home in Chapel Hill. He believes Love and Respect can make a difference. “I really admire Dennis for what he’s trying to do,” Everett says. “We’ve still got a long way to go in how we view substance abusers. The community at large could do a lot better job of helping people in those situations.”

When asked what he’d like to see for people in his situation, Hugh–who’s been at Love and Respect since November–talks about ending the isolation.

“One of the things that pushed me out to use was rejection,” he says. “I’d like to see a day when someone with a criminal background can get a job and when people in recovery can get some respect. Just being in a family life, going places and working, working, working. Just the beauty of being free from the addiction.”

Love and Respect needs household goods, cleaning supplies, toiletries, sheets and towels. The organization is also looking for a van to transport residents to the VA hospital and other appointments. If you can help, call Garrett at 672-0934.