Holy Hustler

Pastor Spann will save Liberty City's soul one addict at a time — if he can stay out of jail.

Two of them are Darryl and Leonard Flowers, middle-aged brothers who have spent their lives hustling to scrape together enough cash to buy some crack or a few beers. Until Spann took over the building, they knew it as a crumbling dump where dark hallways lured fix-seekers to unexpected doom. "This was a place where you didn't always come out the same way you went in," Leonard says. "You go in looking for a $5 ho, but you might get a gun in your face or a knife in your gut."

Another is Ulysses Mathis, who faced a murder charge in the 1970s after he used an oak stick to bludgeon an old friend to death in an argument over five bucks. He pleaded self-defense and was acquitted. For years, he sold crack in a first-floor apartment here. "I was just the man that collects the money and gives it to the next," he says. "I never knew where the money went."

Then there's Diane Tate, who stays at the Basic Training Ministry with her two young children while her husband Anthony serves the end of a nine-month stretch for selling coke.

And there's one-toothed Ulysses "Seadog" Rhaney, age 53, whose rap sheet includes grand theft auto, armed robbery, and felony assault, and whose body bears a constellation of bullet wounds. "I get to drinking and I'm ready to fight," he says matter-of-factly before pulling up his shirt to reveal a surgical equator across his stomach. "The doctors pulled [my] guts out... I've been shot nine times — in my mouth, my hands, my wrist, leg, thigh, lungs. I've been hit by a police car and went through the windshield."

Forty recovering substance abusers with similar stories live at the camouflage-painted compound that is Basic Training. They are packed two or three to a room in apartments and maintain a military appearance — olive-colored shirts with ID tags and military bars, neatly trimmed hair, and scrubbed faces. The only requirement for admission is that they have no current arrest warrants and agree to abstain from drugs and alcohol. They pay $100 a month for room and board only if they're on welfare or have a job. If they're without income, as most are, they pay nothing.

Spann manages this arrangement through a sort of miracle of economics — or pure chicanery.

In 2006, he contacted the owners of the dilapidated building and offered to renovate the place for free in return for allowing Basic Training to occupy it for a year. Around that time, the bank overseeing the building's mortgage foreclosed, and Spann simply stayed.

Buckets full of water are shuttled here from Spann's NW 70th Street house in lieu of actual plumbing. He has never paid the water bill. The same goes for electricity, but utility workers haven't come out to cut the lights — which Spann sees as a holy omission.

The food they eat is donated, most of it from Publix, and Spann has so much surplus that his soldiers sometimes take to the streets handing out dozens of day-old pastries. The furniture and bedding are scavenged or similarly gifted — the Fontainebleau Hotel recently gave him 29 cots, 1,000 towels, and 400 bathrobes. His clients sell the robes on the street for $10 each.

And while the clients may not pay, they earn their keep with Spann's labor model, which falls somewhere between commune, boot camp, and gulag.

New recruits aren't allowed off the grounds for 30 days. They wake at 5:30 every morning and sit groggily through prayer while Spann inspects their rooms. He tolerates only bed folds as sharp as blades and immaculate floors. At 9 a.m., they line up at a nearby abandoned field, where they loudly salute Jesus and are each given their "detail" for the day. These include sawing boards in a workroom, painting walls, and clearing debris from an unused room to make space for six more cots.

The commune hums with activity. Clients hustle past each other, completing their tasks to keep the place running. On a recent afternoon, the smell of dinner — beef stroganoff — hangs in the air. Spann proudly tours his domain. "It's like we're in a jungle with nothing," he says, "and we're finding different ways to survive."

His Liberty City empire will soon extend farther than this building. This past summer, he began renting nine rundown neighborhood houses from a development group that, he says, is glad to have him take them off its hands in this dismal market. The rent is a bargain, $600 per house, and Spann has bought some free months by using client labor to renovate them.

One such house on NW 67th Street has all the feng shui of a bomb shelter. Fifteen beds clog every foot of floor in the blue one-bedroom structure. Despite this, the house is an improvement over the abandoned homes on either side of it.

Spann's plan is to fill this and the other eight houses with tenants looking for a night's shelter. Basic Training clients will guard the doors at all times, making sure these floppers are in by 10 p.m. and out, with all of their belongings, the next morning. That way the properties won't become crack houses. Spann hopes to welcome his first dwellers sometime this month and to begin making money before he must pay rent to the developer.

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