Public Services

Street Voices: Surviving the Crises of Drug Use and Homelessness

Anna, James, and Jennifer open up about their struggles and work towards addressing the lethal illicit drug supply and housing crisis. Their experiences with substance use and homelessness shed light on a system that often fails its most vulnerable members.

May 25, 2023, 3:34 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Shortly after the closing of the Cranston Street Armory closed as a warming station I had a conversation with three people who work in harm reduction serving unsheltered people experiencing substance use. Their names have been changed for their protection and the for protection of the people they serve. Anna and Jennifer are two women with a combined twenty years plus of experience serving people in crisis across the state of Rhode Island. James, who is currently living at a shelter, is a relative newcomer to the job, and is in the process of moving from volunteer to paid staff.

The conversation began with me asking James about his current living conditions at a shelter in Rhode Island.

Uprise RI: So what’s happening at your shelter?

James: We’re seeing a lot of people from the Armory. They’re fights and you got people smoking crack and meth in the bathrooms. One time people got caught in a little gathering passing a meth pipe. And you have people who try to maintain their sobriety and those who go to work. Some people get into a fight, get kicked out, and another person comes right in. It’s a mixture of everyone. It’s interesting, to say the least.

Ever since the Armory closed you see a lot more people there, also at Kennedy Plaza. People just hanging around not able to do anything. Like, there’s really nothing that CES can do at this point.

Note: CES, the Coordinated Entry System, is a dynamic program used to match people in need of shelter with available beds.

Uprise RI: Is the place you’re staying at only CES placement or is it also drop in?

James: It’s not drop in. You have to go through CES in order to get in. There’s really no more dropping in.

Uprise RI: How crowded is it? I haven’t visited there since before the pandemic.

James: It’s crowded. You get people stealing from one another, just literally going right under the bed. Sometimes you’ll be able to lock your stuff, but you’re always looking out. There was this one time that I left my can of soda there and then I walked off. Stupid me – it grew legs. I was like, I catch any one of y’all drinking a can of Orange Fanta I’m going to wait for you outside. I’m not going to lose my bed – but I’m going to catch you outside and we’re going to have a problem. .

You can’t show weakness. You can’t be nice… You’re in a state of survival, so I have to switch on and off. I really do. And that’s instantaneously. I live this certain lifestyle that for me is just like, when I’m here [at work], I’m professional. When I’m at the shelter, I guard up. It like a prison system, so it almost makes me feel like I’m back in jail.

Uprise RI: Have things gotten worse there?

James: I hate to say it, but ever since the Armory shut down, it got worse. And I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, unfortunately. That’s the thing though. When is it going to get better, exactly?

Jennifer: When there’s ample housing. Affordable, accessible, safe supportive housing for every human being.

Anna: James is the first person here every day and he’s been working his ass off here.

James: I love what I do, but, I’m not going to lie. Earlier I had a little – moment – because someone said, “if you’re going to be working here, you need to learn how to spell.” And I was like, oh, I know you’re not talking to me like that.

Anna: You’re under stress.

James: I’m stressed out. I’m living in an environment where I have to have my guard up at all moments of time. And then I have to come here and switch that off. Which is not easy for me. It’s easier for me to be the other way, to be perfectly honest, because it’s a lifestyle that I live. Transitioning to this lifestyle, which I’m grateful for, has helped me in so many ways. So I’m very grateful. I’m still learning how to do that.

Uprise RI: It gets you in contact with your better self?

James: Yeah. I’m not from like Rhode Island. I’m from Jersey City, New Jersey. It’s a different animal over there. It’s a different animal. Not a lot of people make it out. I’ve had 70 friends die there in five years. That’s just friends. Our murder rate at one point was like a hundred and something a year. That’s just the murder rate. Then you have robbery, you have home invasions, you have kidnappings.

Uprise RI: So what are you doing now?

James: Well, I’m about to get hired, but technically right now I’m still volunteering/interning here.

Anna: Your first official day, right?

James: I get to be good and try to help people in my position, and advocate for anyone and everyone. I’m a little rougher around the edges though. I’m not going to lie. I’ll be honest, I have an attitude problem. I’m not perfect. I have an attitude problem because when I feel like I’m being threatened that barrier of protect yourself just instantaneously comes up and I have to realize where I’m at. I’m still work in progress, but I’m doing a lot better.

Anna: This is it right? How do we get people out of that place where they have to be reactive to survive? If you want people to really recover, that means you have to provide them a safe place to do it. A place that they can decompress, a place that they can get the resources they need.

We can’t just re-traumatize people over and over and then expect them to be okay. James is going to work every day and learning and going to trainings and doing all this because he wants to better himself. There’s still no adequate help, and that’s fucked.

Jennifer: It’s really hard to do this work. Every time I meet somebody that’s in a bad position I’m like, “Well I have a spare bedroom.” But that is super toxic. I’ve thought about renting my condo to people and moving out just so they have a place to stay. And I have to remind myself that I can’t – I just can’t take it that personal. But I do take it that personal.

Anna: That’s the human thing. We want to do that all the time. We have to fight against our human instincts all the time to do what we’re supposed to within the boundaries that are set for us. We know that everybody needs a place to go. We would happily bring someone home with us if we thought it would make a difference. But the thing is, there’s 40 more people in line, right?

SAFETY

Anna: What if we tell someone we can’t help them today? There is no housing, there is no bed for you? When people hear this they are often at risk of self harm or harming others.

Our regulars won’t hurt us, but some people saw on the TV news that we have hotel rooms, which isn’t true. People are assigned hotel rooms and shelter through CES. When they come by and we can’t help them they get angry. “What do you mean you can’t get me a bed?” The reporting, after the Armory closed, was frustrating because no one reached out to us to see what our capacity actually looks like. Instead people were told that we are the people that cwith shelter beds.

Uprise RI: Governor McKee made a statement that there’ll be a bed for everybody who wants one.

Jennifer: [Sounding doubtful] Okay…

Anna: I would love to see that.

Uprise RI: When I asked the Department of Housing to clarify that and admit that there wasn’t a shelter for everybody who wanted one, they demurred. Later I had a statement from Eileen Hayes of Amos House reporting that 20 people leaving the Armory received tents. That’s not a bed for everybody who wants one. [Amos House ran the services at the Cranston Street Armory Warming Station with the help of the Rhode Island National Guard.]

Anna: And were those people who were offered beds offered a safe, accessible bed?

Uprise RI: I’m not sure.

Anna: What if we don’t have the ability to transport that person to a bed that is useful to them?

Uprise RI: I’ve brought that question to a lot of people and nobody has an adequate answer.

So, what should I be writing about? What’s the story I should be telling?

Anna: The story for me is the failure of the social safety net. But the story also of the people in need who are doing everything right, whatever that means. They come into work every day, pursuing goals and sleeping in a shelter bed, trying to stay sober while the person next to them is actively using.

James: I see that every day.

Uprise RI: James, you spend hours on the bus to get to your job.

James: And hours back to the shelter.

Anna: There are people who, like James, are trying to use their lives and their story to advocate for our community. These are people who need support. James is a person who – not that there are people who don’t deserve housing – but James is a person who fucking deserves this.

James: I don’t even care if they do something for me. Give it to the clients. Like I said, I’ll deal with it. When I come to work, I enjoy it.

Jennifer: But people who work in this field should not be struggling to the extent that they are. Half my staff is barely paying rent, surviving. If I didn’t have a roommate, I couldn’t make it.

James: That’s the worst part. When it comes to systems in America, we’ve been saying how flawed it is for how many decades? And yet it’s still there, right? What does that say?

It says no one really cares. Because if they did, it would’ve been changed. It would’ve been changed a long time ago. We call ourselves the dominant power. That is a complete joke. I would laugh in the President’s face and just be like, “You obviously are not paying attention.” It’s just a complete and utter failure. He lives in a completely different world. The thing is, we’re still slaves. We’re still slaves just because we’re getting paid the minimal and the only ones that actually enjoy the fruits of the labors are the ones that are on top. Why are they reaping it? It doesn’t make sense. Help me make that make sense.

Anna: That’s the thing. For us to show up every day and do what we’re supposed to do in this system, we end up perpetuating the violence of the system. And that is what leads to burnout, depression, suicidality. Most of our staff are living below the poverty line. I read an article about how the staff working with people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles are all housing insecure. They can’t afford to pay the rents in Los Angeles. In Rhode Island, it’s the same thing. I was having a conversation with a staff member yesterday. She said, “I’m never going to be able to buy a house.”

We are giving our heart and soul and our health and our lives to this. That’s the reality. And there is no certificate of commendation or mandala coloring book that is going to fix that for us. This isn’t about self-care. This is about systemic failure. This is about how we can’t win this with hutzpah, or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, because someone took away the boots. This is not something that we can solve with a good attitude. It’s not something we can solve with thoughts and prayers. Thoughts and prayers don’t build housing.

Our job was was not originally to manage the housing crisis. It was to provide overdose prevention, interventions, Narcan, talk to people who are in active drug use or living with people who are in active drug use so that we can make a dent there. Now we have been thrown into this tumble dry of the housing crisis and it is taking the wind out of all of our sails. I deal with mental illness. I’ve dealt with a lot of suicidality in the last few years, just dealing with this job. This isn’t easy. It isn’t fun to look someone in the face who just lost a loved one while unhoused, and now they are just waiting to be next. And the only thing we could do for them that day was give them a tent. Days later we did get them a shelter bed.

James: Which was great.

Anna: Thank God. Because having someone look you in the eyes and tell you that they’re done is something I can’t take much more of. The amount of hopelessness is overwhelming and our staff are actively experiencing it or very close to experiencing it themselves.

I think that’s the story. The failure of the system and the fact that the labor is being placed on the people who have the most challenging stuff in their lives to navigate, who are paid the least, who are people trying to manage their own recoveries, their own mental illness.

Why the are we the ones out here doing this? That’s what I want to know. Why the fuck is this on us?

James: I think the reason is because no one else will do it.

Jennifer: I get so many phone calls from people in positions of authority, that are not my boss, that are telling me to do things and I’m like, “Dude, I’m trying to hand out overdose prevention supplies at a methadone clinic because there are no resources available to them whatsoever outside of that clinic and you’re telling me to drop everything and go deal with this housing situation?” I’m not a housing navigator, I’m not a housing case manager. I am a junkie who has not used drugs for over ten years who is really passionate about preventing people from dying and giving them the supplies and the tools and the support they need to stay safe while they make choices for themselves.

Anna: That’s exactly why I’m here. The people I’ve loved who aren’t here anymore – who died because of the toxic illicit drug supply – are the reason I do this. That’s why I’m here. I never agreed to take on the housing crisis. Why is this work falling on the people across the state making the least but working the hardest?

James: For me, I push myself to do it because a friend died in a bathroom here. I almost reverted back to my old ways. I said, “I swear if I ever find that person that gave her the bag, I’d just killed them.” I didn’t care if it was night or daylight, I would blow his head off and I meant it. I was looking for him. But – something was just telling me not to. I thought about what she said to me. She said, “Don’t let this city swallow you. You’re a good guy.” I miss her.

Jennifer: The person who is doing the direct one-on-one sale, that’s not who is poisoning the drug supply. The fact that they’re charging people who are responsible for selling the bag that kills somebody is so ludicrous.

Anna: We have to ask ourselves, why are people getting high? A lot of it just to navigate trauma. But out here, when you’re experiencing homelessness, from my understanding, a lot of people take dope and downers so they can actually sleep or relax or be relieved of physical pain or emotional pain. People will take uppers, meth and shit like that to stay up at night because they know they’re going to get attacked. They’re afraid. They’re afraid that someone’s going to steal their shit or they’re going to get raped, or beaten up, or whatever. These are survival tools for people. We can’t get to the bottom of the drug poisoning crisis because people are having to rely on these substances to survive. It’s counterintuitive because we see these substances as deadly or dangerous. But for a lot of people they are survival

James: I needed it when I was out there. I was doing what I had to. I was very violent and I needed something to help me not think of the people that I was harming. I was seeing their faces over and over again. I’ve been in drive-bys, I’ve been shot at multiple times. I was doing drugs just so I could cope with the reality of the situation and the childhood trauma that happened to me. We do drugs to numb ourselves. We don’t want to feel it. I didn’t want to feel nothing.

Thank God for my two years clean. I’m grateful for it. If it wasn’t for the people who helped me out, I would probably be dead already. And that’s why I do what I do and I love it. I was doing it for free before – now I’m going to get paid as an added bonus. I do what I do and I enjoy it. Advocacy is what I really like to do. I do harm reduction and I do outreach. I like advocating because I like to strategically plan and know everything before I’m going to go after something. When I’m talking with these representatives or senators, I have to be informed.

Anna: You lived it. It’s your experience and you’re speaking from the heart. You do that so well. It’s like you get into that zone and you’re like a shark. You’re just swimming and you’re just saying it because it’s what’s in your heart and on your mind. And that’s what makes people pay attention.

There is a treasure trove of answers here. If you go to the people who have experienced it and have survived it and who have come out on the other side of it, those people have the tools. No one else does. I don’t have a lot of the tools because I grew up in the suburbs with a lot of support. I’m mentally ill, but I was lucky. And that’s the only difference, period,

Uprise RI: It’s only luck. There is no other factor.

Anna: There is no other factor. People need to recognize that the only difference between them and someone who’s panhandling on the corner is luck, straight up. The fact that you weren’t harmed by your family as a child, the fact that you never had to see violence, the fact that you were protected from that. What a blessing it is to be able to give that to your kids. That’s what everyone wants, to be able to get to work, have a safe place to raise your family, have a good school to send your kids to. That’s what people want.

James: As a convicted felon, they say they are second chance programs but that’s just a ploy. Those second chance programs suck because at the end of the day you’re at the mercy of those companies. After a year of trying, I’d just go back to gang banging.

Uprise RI: That’s back in Jersey City, right?

James: Yeah. I started at the age of like 13.

Uprise RI: That’s common. 13 is the age where you can finally get out of the house, get away from abusers and have the power that allows you to push back against the abuse you’re suffering as a kid.

James: I ran with some of the best who ever did it, and I climbed through the ranks very quickly because of how brutal I was. It was just – I had a lot of anger, a lot of hate because the person that harmed me fled the country and escaped, you know?

I was nine when the sexual assault happened. It was from my stepfather’s brother. Before that even happened, my father died. But I caught a lot of lucky breaks and I asked myself, “Why am I still here? Why am I still breathing?” I should have been dead a long time ago. My mother didn’t even think I would make it to see 16. that’s how hard I was.

I’m very grateful for this life, to what I choose to call God. All that pain, all that suffering, all that trauma – it prepared me for doing this work and being able to advocate for people

Anna: As the social safety net continues to fail, we are no longer providing the services we need to the people who need them. We are in triage mode, trying to help people who are at risk, who don’t have any idea how to navigate this and who are scared. When we place them in hotel rooms, who’s feeding them? If the shelter bed isn’t on a bus route, like the one in Smithfield, what do they do if they don’t have transportation?

Our people just disappear. To watch people get sucked into a vacuum is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen or experienced. I didn’t realize just what a machine it was. It’s just like putting people in a meat grinder and that’s just not right. It’s very scary.

Jennifer: They’re constantly moving because encampment sites are being bulldozed. It makes it much harder for them to connect with services because these folks don’t have phones and we don’t have the capacity to be everywhere all the time. We’re really small teams. My team has six people on a good day, you know?

Uprise RI: Six people serving how many? Hundreds?

Jennifer: Yeah.

Anna: Hundreds and hundreds – with more significant problems than we know what to deal with. We don’t know how to navigate the nursing home structure. I don’t know how to get people into a nursing home. It’s a whole different structure. There are certain groups of people I just don’t know how to help. I’m not a case manager – I never did that. That’s never been my job. We are doing our best to hold off the arterial bleed without proper support, training or resources. Like, where is the cavalry?

Jennifer: Everything gets dumped on people like us because we are so passionate about helping people. We figure out how to help people to the best of our ability, instead of creating sustainable solutions and hiring people who have the capacity and the training to do this work. We’re harm reductionists. We’re people with lived experience who are really passionate about people not dying and helping people not die.

Anna: We’re putting good people in a bad system, but that doesn’t change the bad system.

Uprise RI: All I can say is thank you. Sincerely.