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Addiction on the Streets: Frequently Asked Questions

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.

I’ve become more tied to street-level addiction in 2012, and I often get many queries in life and in email– some good, insightful questions, some woefully uninformed and some offensive. It’s odd for one’s thoughts and time to be dedicated to something so out of the mainstream, so here’s my attempt at answering.

Takeesha, a heroin and crack addict and prostitute, and I with a stray cat I later adopted, upon her encouragement.

1. Aren’t you afraid?

Regardless of how many times it’s posed, this question always surprises me. No, I’m not afraid, not in the least. I leave my answer at that. I ask in return: if you carry the disrespect of fear for an area or group of people, how can you expect not to be treated aggressively in kind?

Please see: Statistical Chances of Harm
Drugs Don’t Cause Violence

But you’re a woman.

Yes, I am aware of that. My gender won’t impede me from entering an area. No, I don’t have more fear because of this, but nor am I reckless. I carry awareness for my surroundings, as anyone of any sex should in a new or uncertain environment.

Pimps have tried to recruit me, and johns often try to pick me up. The reality is, women in the area are often asked if they work the streets. Being female allows me to understand this a bit more.

However, as far as personal interactions go, men have respected me far more on the streets of the South Bronx than they have in Midtown Manhattan. They speak to me politely (as opposed to many mid-level finance executives), and I’ve never been groped, unlike in the subway or in Manhattan. I’m harassed much more by men in suits and by hipsters than I am in Hunts Point.

2. Doesn’t seeing addiction on the streets depress you?

No, it shows me how resilient people are, how, as brutal and bleak as life gets, people can find humor and friendship.

3. What have you learned about addiction from being in the Bronx?

Addicts are some of the strongest people I’ll ever meet. I respect those that struggle with addiction enormously.

The vast majority of women who work the streets in Hunts Point have been severely abused by men in their lifetimes. They turn to drugs to deal with their past suffering and the fear, uncertainty and disgust from the sex work. Addiction often (though not always) comes from coping with immense pain — emotional, physical and psychological.

4. Aren’t you afraid you’ll catch something?

See question 1 about respect. Many of those I speak with battle Hepatitis C or HIV/AIDS, and so what?

5. What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you in Hunts Point?

Police harassment.

6. What’s the most danger you’ve put yourself in?

I’ve gone in several gang-controlled drug buildings, upon invitation of a resident.

7. How do you deal with the bad people you meet?

I don’t believe anyone’s truly bad, just as no one’s all good. The innate stereotypes I came harboring have fallen away over time. For instance, however much I could have doubted it, I’ve become close to, and fond of, a pimp. She’s cried on my shoulder, fearing that her little brother might get into her line of work. No one’s one-sided: people are complicated and wonderful.

Charlie, a pimp (left); me; and Jen, her girl (right) outside of Rikers Island jail. Charlie let me wear her sunglasses.

7. What are you doing with all of this?

I’m writing a narrative non-fiction book.

8. What do you hope comes from your time in the Bronx?

I want to reduce the stigma surrounding those who live on the streets and who struggle with addiction. I want people to have a greater awareness of the level and cycle of poverty in America, the entrapment of some communities.

9. What can I do to help?

You can share the story of your addiction. You can temper your fear of poor or drug-ridden communities. You can acknowledge the level of societal judgment that exists for those combating addiction and work to change your own mind and/or others’. You understand that, because of genetic and financial luck, life’s a lot easier for some of us.
More Hunts Point Addiction Writing
Writing Beyond Addiction in Hunts Point
Chris Arnade’s Photos and his Facebook feed

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. jh443 3:12 pm 01/2/2013

    I have personal experience with homelessness, and have known a fair share of addicts because of it. My observation is that the opinion of the general public can be summarized in one generalization: “It’s their own fault.” This opinion is compounded by their desire to avoid even thinking about the subject. There also seems to be the belief that the whole problem could be eliminated if these people would just put forth the effort – in other words, get off their lazy a**es.

    The only way to eliminate the stigma is to change this way of thinking. This problem faces two obstacles: 1) People must be convinced they are wrong (not an easy task – especially when people choose to avoid the topic altogether) and, 2) All too often, it’s the truth.

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  2. 2. cccampbell38 9:30 pm 01/2/2013

    I’m a “white collar” alcoholic, 42 years sober. I have spent most of that time working with other middle class addicts as a credentialed counselor. Except for the homelessness (most of the time) and the poverty (again, most of the time), the story of pain, hopelessness, guilt, abusive relationships, and the never ending struggle to get out of that black hole is pretty much the same as that which you are describing. Maybe 1 out of four made it. The rest? Well, God rest their souls.

    Perhaps, for contrast and comparison, you might try to arrange a visit to some fancy treatment center and sit in on some groups. The people will be different, the stories pretty much the same.

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  3. 3. abolitionist 10:29 pm 01/3/2013


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  4. 4. stevecastleman 11:24 pm 01/6/2013

    Addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease. It’s treatable. Perhaps not as successfully as one might like, but on a par with other chronic diseases that require substantial behavioral change, like diabetes and hypertension.

    Unfortunately, many people still don’t believe addiction is a disease. That’s why science-based education is so important.

    For a not-for-profit website that discusses the science of substance use and abuse in accessible English (how alcohol and drugs work in the brain; how addiction develops; why addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease; what parts of the brain malfunction as a result of substance abuse; how that malfunction skews decision-making and motivation, resulting in addict behaviors; why some get addicted while others don’t; how treatment works; how well treatment works; why relapse is common; what family and friends can do; etc.) please click on

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  5. 5. Dilznick 3:31 pm 01/15/2013

    More narcissistic voyeurism will help the cause

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  6. 6. kc10101 8:00 pm 03/10/2013

    You are doing very important work here, as a former heroin addict I thank you for trying to put an end to stereotypes not only of users but also of neighborhoods like these and the people that live in them.

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