Former Seattle homeless man to the city: Shack encampments are hurting the homeless | Op-Ed

Every addict’s story is different, but we all share one thing: In every case our lives got worse after we started using drugs. Every person in recovery has something in common, too: our lives didn’t get better until we stopped.

Before I started using heroin, I was what you’d think of as a success story. I led a fortunate life as a teenager and young man: prom king in high school, graduated college with honors… I was a real go-getter. By 30 I had a business with 20 employees. There were some rough times during my 30s. I got depressed after my divorce and did some drinking, but I eventually sobered up on my own. When the Great Recession hit, my company went downhill like a lot of other contractor businesses, and I was forced to shut it down. At that point, I was feeling burned out and hopeless, and that’s when I fell into addiction. I was 42.

At first the heroin gave me energy and motivation; it helped me cope with the depression and stress. But it was an illusion. As my addiction worsened, I started injecting heroin. I moved into an RV and spent most of my time and money supporting my habit. I sold drugs, stole things, scrap metal, catalytic converters, or whatever I could get my hands on. At one point, I had a $200 a day habit. I started sleeping with a gun.

I think something people need to understand is that things always get worse for an addict; they never get better, and they never even stay the at the same level of bad as long as you’re actively using. I eventually lost the RV I was living in, and started staying in a car. Then in a tent, and finally, on Seattle streets. I was on food stamps and state assistance, but it wasn’t enough to keep me in a place. Detox and treatment were options, but I wasn’t compelled to pursue them. My friends and family would have helped me get treatment, if I had asked for it, but I had burned every bridge with them, and they weren’t going to come looking for me.

Anyway, for me, recovery was so far off, the only thing I could think about was avoiding withdrawal. There’s nothing an addict fears more than withdrawal, which starts happening in 12 hours if you don’t keep the drug in your system. It happened to me a few times. What does withdrawal look like? It’s horrible. Painful. Shaking, convulsing, hallucinating. All you can think is: Get money, get dope, get money, get dope.

Eventually, my health started to go, just like it does for any addict. I was in and out of the hospital, with abscesses on my arms. I ended up as little more than a skeleton, with gaping holes in my arms. It was here I finally hit bottom. When I had nowhere else to go and was physically declining—this is what finally compelled me to get clean. I got into the Salvation Army’s recovery program at their Adult Rehab Center. Now I’m clean and sober with a job painting, and I live in South Lake Union right where the city wants to put a tiny shack encampment.

I’m frustrated thinking about it. Most of the people who wind up in there will be addicts. Just as most of my friends still out in the streets are, and just like I was. Putting them in a shack isn’t helping them. It would not have helped me. I’m thankful no one offered me a shack, because I would have taken it and who knows if I would be clean today.

These folks are not thinking rationally. They’re not capable of making good decisions. If someone had offered to set me up in a shack and paid for my living expenses, I would never have gotten sober. I’d probably be dead now. You can give an addict a house to live in, a ton of money, a job. Nothing helps until you take away the drug.

I specifically chose to live in South Lake Union after I got clean because this was a relatively drug-free place. As a recovering heroin addict, every day is a battle. On weaker days, it’s hard to walk past people shooting up and have the dealers approach, as it happens in other areas of Seattle. But now the city wants to bring drugs into my neighborhood, and honestly, I am afraid for my sobriety. I feel that the city is working against people in recovery. We’re trying to stay clean, but the city is putting those in recovery at risk to help other people continue their addictions. Why not make Seattle into a welcoming place for people in recovery?

What about instead of having shack villages that turn a blind eye to drug use, we made getting into recovery a package deal with housing? I might support something like that. But the deal they’re offering now? No. That’s bad for everyone.

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9 Comments

  1. Jody McPeak

    Analogy: Ever since you were tiny, your mother told you not to stick anything into an electrical outlet. That is because it is DANGEROUS and no good can come of it. Same with drugs. Everywhere you look, you see evidence in the form of junkies, PSA’s, newspaper and internet articles telling you that using illegal drugs are DANGEROUS and no good can come of it.

    So the next time you feel stressed, depressed, bored, or whatever your excuse is for becoming an addict, why don’t you just stick a fork into an electrical outlet? It makes about as much sense, and your misery will be over sooner.

    Right, I am heartless and have a simplistic approach, but I have yet to hear of any plausible excuse for anyone to stick a needle in his or her arm and then expect relief from our limited social services system. Stick a fork in an outlet, stick a needle in your arm, what is the difference?

    • Frederick Fripps

      im pretty sure no one goes straight to injecting drugs but keep up the great analogy work.

  2. Carol

    Making recovery part of getting into housing is a good idea. I hope it takes hold.

    • Frederick Fripps

      Isnt that already a thing though? From my understanding, many addicts turn down the housing assistance because of the rules/recovery part

  3. Larry

    Sounds too good to be true. So is living in a tent preferable to living in one of the tiny houses? My son volunteered for sawhorse revolution, an organization that builds and donates tiny houses. We should try and pool together and come up with solutions, short term and long term, and not spread made up stories. Not every homeless person is an addict, or a convict

  4. Doug

    This is garbage. I live in the tiny shack village at Aurora and 85th. I am not an addict. Im a felon with depression. Fuck anyone who advocates removing or refusing housing just because they don’t agree with it. Some people will use these shacks to feed their addiction and some use them to beat them. You make me sick.

    • can i interview you? Doug im working on a response piece both to this article and the video previously connected

  5. Toccoa Davis

    I know a few people who never would have got OFF hard drugs without the shelter of a tiny home and the support of the community there. I lived in the woods for almost 5 years before joining Nickelsville. It wasn’t drugs: it’s depression and anxiety and autism spectrum shit and borderline personality disorder, coupled with a deep lack of faith in the social systems that have mostly only served to exacerbate my symptoms… Some people have felt too chronically oppressed throughout their lives to willingly subject themselves to what they fear will be a dehumanizing kindergarten jail environment, like school when you don’t fit in, or like a lot of the homeless shelters. I never would have begun MY path to recovery without my own safe space within a community of equals: Nickelsville villages are run democratically by the residents, with a little bit of oversight from the city of Seattle. We have basic, common sense rules: no drugs, no violence… And every resident is expected to do their part to keep things safe and clean. It’s very important not to confuse the city’s “low barrier” experiment with a real, functioning shelter community. LIHI built a village called Licten Springs on the already crime riddled Aurora strip. It is NOT self-managed, and the residents have been allowed to do all of the things that give homeless folk a bad name. Drugging, stealing, hoarding… It’s almost as though the city established the disaster that is Licten Springs in order to make the real, actually helpful actual communities look bad and to perpetuate the FALSE stereotype that only degenerates and junkies end up homeless.

  6. storeegurl09

    absolutely agree, my mother was chronically homeless in Seattle for over 3 years, untill finially she passed…. she was a double amputee w/severe diabetes- and still couldnt find services! What a blessing it would have been to have this housing opportunity- but also, how even more disappointing to have that opportunity taken by a addict with no intention of bettering their situation…..
    There was specific programs targeting EVERY group of people : mental illness, recovering addicts, victims of domestic violence, LGBT, ex-offenders, teens, refugees, ect….
    These shack/mini homes need to be made available more thoughtfully.
    THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO DONT WANT TO BE ON THE STREETS AND WILL PARTICIPATE IF GIVEN THE CHANCE TO HELP THEMSELVES
    Let the opportunities go to those who it will do some good for!

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