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A Street Addict’s Cycle in NYC

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty and prostitution in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.

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Each year, about 100,000 people return to New York City communities from the city jails; another 25,000 return from New York State prisons.

Because prisons and jails are filled with people with much higher rates of health and related problems than the general population, public health practitioners increasingly see the importance of addressing the needs of this population. An estimated 80% of New York City jail inmates report a substance use problem, yet most inmates receive limited or no help to find drug treatment after release, and most leave jail without government benefits or identification to get needed services.1

Michael flits in and out of New York City jail and rehab. He refers to his “program” as Operation Spotlight, where, he says, offenders arrested over 30 times for one type of offense, such as possession or possession with intent to sell, find themselves on a cat-and-mouse cycle of perpetual arrests, recurring lock-ups almost arbitrarily guaranteed. He’s been profiled, his ways “figured out.”

Currently, he’s on the run from NYPD’s White Van, the kind that hunts down and nabs offenders, though he waves amiably at a passing cop car. “Oh, he [the policeman] loves me. He’s a good one. It’s the van I have to watch out for.” The small-statured, jittery man has been avoiding his two “homes” for the past few days, one a small, near one-bedroom-style expanse above a railway, the other a cavernous stretch under a bridge causeway. The van’s been looking for him there. Instead, he alights on makeshift dwellings, keeping watch.

Michael: Hunts Point, Bronx
Michael, in his home above the railway. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Coping with chronic heroin abuse and addiction, Michael’s due to be arrested for another possession charge. Everyday cops don’t bother him, so long as they’re not the pick-up van. He’s expecting “30 or better,” a 30-day stint or longer, in Rikers Island jail as soon as the White Van catches up with him, or if he comes forward for voluntary arrest, a small stay in a Manhattan rehab facility. Since he’s had a repetitious run of 30-day-even sentences, he’s losing hope that the shorter-term stays will continue.

When turned out from jail, Michael and others like him retreat back to the streets from which they came, to areas, lifestyles and people they know will accept them. Those like Michael have no money, familial connections, housing, hope for easy employment with a felony record or realistic federal assistance. (Homeless addicts often don’t have the proper forms and credentials necessary to reap government benefits.) Even when endeavoring to remain clean, a familiarly trodden street-to-jail-to-street pattern, community triggers and an arrest-ready police force sully best-laid plans.

In Hunts Point, Bronx, for many, ordinary life is a cycle. People disappear for a month, or months, at a time, friends often only cursorily aware of what’s happened. The arrested person in question will then reappear clean from jail some months later, before slowly slip-sliding back into tried-and-true drug use habits. This way, reintegration to a productive life post-arrest for street addicts becomes a spool of fiction.1 Instead, the neighborhood’s arrest-laden, marginalized members land in a system hedge maze where paths converge back at homelessness and drug abuse.

Michael "Shelley":  Hunts Point, Bronx
Michael, a portrait. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Michael stokes half-hearted wishes of getting clean, however unlikely a permanent foothold. Now, his immediate goal is evading police, his second, killing his dope sickness. It’s running and more dope, or temporary jail-induced rehab, then, reshuffle the dueling options.

1Van Olphen J, Freudenberg N, Fortin P, Galea S. Community reentry: Perceptions of individuals returning from New York City Jails. J Urban Health. 2006;83:372–381. doi: 10.1007/s11524-006-9047-4. [PMC free article]

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. nickweilbach 1:54 pm 09/19/2012

    What a tragedy. I hope he can manage to kick the habit.

    Link to this

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