By Colleen Mastony

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — On a recent morning, twin brothers Frank and Anthony Nowotnik sat in a Starbucks in Uptown Chicago, sipping coffee and talking about the past. Anthony was clean-shaven and dressed in jeans and a black leather jacket. Frank looked more casual, with stubble across his chin, wearing a brown cap and a puffer jacket. Both smelled of soap and mouthwash.

The little details about the men — from their recent haircuts, to their clean clothes — were not-so-small miracles for the now 45-year-old brothers, though you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t know their story.

Three years ago, the men were homeless, living under a bridge at California Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway, and uncertain about almost everything in their lives.

Now, they are “still trying to get rid of the past,” said Anthony. But they have made great strides since they were profiled in articles that ran in the Tribune beginning in 2010. And they said they will be forever grateful to the social workers who helped them escape the streets.

“The ones who met us under the bridge,” Anthony said. “They’re the ones who saved us. They didn’t give up.”

At Pathways Safe Haven, a housing program for the formerly homeless where the brothers have now lived for more than two years, “people aren’t giving up either,” added Frank. “They really got some patience.”

The brothers lived on the streets for nearly 30 years, when they were first profiled by the Tribune in December 2010. That fall, Anthony had been hit by a car and, because of his injuries, had been offered a place to stay by a program for the most vulnerable homeless. Despite the offer, Anthony had refused to go inside without Frank, who couldn’t get housing for several more weeks.

That December, the brothers lived under the bridge, waiting for the day when Frank’s room would become available and they could move inside together.

When that day did arrive, however, it didn’t solve their problems. Both are alcoholics who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and a host of other health problems.

Within four months of moving into the Lake View YMCA, the brothers were kicked out for drunkenness and unruly behavior.

Social workers found them a second housing program, but the twins were soon kicked out of there, too.

In fall 2011, they entered Pathways, a program run by the nonprofit Heartland Health Outreach and one that is unusual because it seeks to put the homeless into housing but does not require them to stop drinking or using drugs in order to stay.

The approach is called “housing first.” The idea is to put a roof over a person’s head, and then to address the problems that might have led to homelessness in the first place. Requirements in the Pathways program are few, on the theory that you can’t force someone to stop drinking or using drugs.

For the brothers, “just the fact that they’ve moved from outside to inside is a huge victory,” said Ed Stellon, a program officer at Heartland.

Over the past two years, the staff has been “elated” at the twins’ progress, Stellon said.

“Not only are they taking their medication every day, they’re also going to our primary care health center,” Stellon said. “It’s all about these small steps and little victories.”

Four months ago, Anthony checked himself into a 28-day alcohol treatment program. After waking up one morning choking on blood, he decided it was time. He hasn’t had a drink since, Anthony said.

Getting sober was “the hardest thing in the world,” he said. “I feel much better. I can comprehend better. I can listen.”

As for Frank, he is still drinking. But he is inspired by his brother’s sobriety. He said he has been drinking less and hopes to give up alcohol too.