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How I Survived as a Homeless Crack Addict

Living rough in Los Angeles drove me to lengths of desperation that included robbery and trying to sell off my own body parts. But six years after kicking crack, I draw strength from my darkest times.
Los Angeles' Skid Row. (Photo: IK's World Trip/Flickr)

Los Angeles' Skid Row. (Photo: IK's World Trip/Flickr)

One night in April 2008, I decided to use my last 11 bags of heroin to go to sleep forever. I’d just arrived in Los Angeles, alone, and finished smoking the end of my crack. From the bush, I could see the world go by, but they couldn’t see me. I opened those 11 bags of heroin and sniffed them all—the most I’d ever done.

What I didn’t know is that there was an irrigation system set up to water the plants at night. So I woke up suddenly in the early hours, sopping wet and freezing cold. It was neither heaven nor hell, but I was screwed.

THAT WAS MY FIRST night inside the bush where I would live, in a cardboard box, for five months. It was a miracle that I’d found the place, just at the back of Union Station. When I found it, I got high, then went and explored. The day, like most in Los Angeles, was beautiful, warm, and sunny. I got back in that bush and realized that, man, I’d made a mess of things.

In New York, I’d been using and dealing for years. At one point, I was making six-figures cash, selling to some pretty rich and famous clients and enjoying life. But somehow everything changed, like my addiction was telling me, “No, stay in that chair and smoke crack, all day.”

I’d go to the methadone clinic every day—I didn’t want to become a slave to methadone, but I didn’t want to be dope-sick, either. And by not having to pay for heroin, I’d still have money left for crack.

I caught a charge, then violated my bail conditions when my case was referred to a drug court. Evading the cops, I ran out of money. So I robbed a heroin dealer and used the cash to buy an Amtrak ticket. I boarded with enough heroin to kill a herd of elephants, enough crack to last the next couple of days, and a vestige of hope that, just maybe, I could build a new life in L.A.

In the morning hours in the bush behind Union Station, I would normally be crashing from the night before, making a desperate attempt to get some sort of sleep and hide from the sunlight—using alcohol, pills, heroin, whatever, because I’d run out of crack.

Most days, I would get up and go to the Amtrak bathroom to wash my face and brush my hair. Then I would walk for maybe half a mile or so down to Skid Row. I’d walk down Alameda, then over to the Mission District, where I would get breakfast.

Skid Row, a community of thousands of homeless people in an industrial area on the outskirts of downtown L.A., is a place where everyone wants housing. But maybe three apartments open up each month, so everyone else just wanders. That’s really what we did: We walked aimlessly, from breakfast to lunch, waited on the lunch line, then walked aimlessly again in that hot sun. Once a month I’d take the train to Long Beach to go take a bath in the ocean.

Later in the day, after my daily resolve never to do crack again had worn off, that same insidious question would arise: How can I get some money to, you know, just get a couple of hits?

I WAS 16 WHEN I first used crack. Some guys I smoked weed and drank with in New York broke out this “ether.” It was a big deal. They got this pharmaceutical coke from California, and, down in my friend’s cozy apartment, with his fireplace and mahogany bar, they cooked this stuff called freebase. And they passed me the pipe.

Crack hit the streets in 1984, and I was a frequent user for about 15 years total between '86 and 2008. I took a few years off during that time, when I would stop smoking crack and stick to weed. There was always heroin, too—I needed to sniff it to offset the crash.

IN L.A., I BEGAN selling the plasma out of my arms. I would hop on a bus out to this bio company in Sepulveda. They would hook me up and somehow take the plasma out of my blood, re-circulate the blood back in my arm, and pay me $35. I could do that almost three times a week. But I screwed it up by stealing a kid’s bicycle from outside the clinic. When I gave it back, under threat of arrest, they said, “We’re shooting your social security number all over L.A., so you’ll never be able to sell another drop of blood.”

Homeless people teach homeless people how to survive. In fact, the first homeless dude I asked, a 65-year-old black guy named Spider, told me where to get and sell food stamps and about the plasma thing. So I started running with him. You make your allegiances, but there was no trusting people, really. I never brought anybody to my bush or let them know where I was staying.

In the bush I could sleep as late as I wanted and get high by myself. But it was brutal—that loneliness, that emptiness, the regret for everything I had smoked and abandoned. I would go to sleep wishing I wouldn’t wake up, praying for an earthquake.

Begging was depressing. People would just step over you. I didn’t have any teeth, so that might have been one thing, although I thought I didn’t look as bad as your average homeless person: I’ve always been vain, so tried to keep somewhat of an appearance. Still, I got so sick of being rejected that I just stopped begging. Instead, I took a little pocket knife and cut these bird-of-paradise flowers that grew around Union Station. I figured, I’m a hustler—I’ll sell them. But nobody would buy these nice flowers. I couldn’t understand it.

One lady at the bus stop once gave me five dollars and looked me in the eyes. I’ll never forget her.

I now work for the treatment program I was once mandated to. Ever since I was able to let go of my old life, I feel like I’ve been on a path that’s paved with gold.

After I’d sold plasma or made money some other way, I would come back downtown, where, after three weeks’ wait, I had gotten on a methadone program. I’d go there every day—I didn’t want to become a slave to methadone, but I didn’t want to be dope-sick, either. And by not having to pay for heroin, I’d still have money left for crack.

My other ways to make money included robbing or taking advantage of people, and selling soap or rocks. I even planned to sell my kidney: I stole a marker from Rite-Aid, got a piece of cardboard and made a sign: “Kidney for Sale.” This was six weeks into being homeless. I was on my way to a dialysis center, to post my sign there, when the cops stopped me for jaywalking. They informed me that it’s illegal to sell a body part, and asked to see my ID.

Unmasked as a fugitive from New York, I ended up in L.A. county jail. That’s when I tried to kill myself by cutting my wrists with a little piece of steel, but I couldn’t dig deep enough. I was in there for two weeks. They don’t give you methadone for heroin addiction, but Benadryl, which is kind of sadistic. My hair was hurting, I was kicking so hard.

L.A. jail was way worse than any in New York City. Rikers Island was Disneyland compared to L.A. jail. I planned to hang myself. But apparently New York had 14 days to come and get me; on day 16 they were like, “Do you have somewhere to go?” I said I had a friend in Woodland Hills.

Six hours later I was out, as clean as I’d ever been in my life. This time, I told myself, it would be different. I would get a resume and move out of the bush. But it turned out my food stamps and general relief hit that day.

Our general relief, or welfare, was $220 cash allotment, plus $167 of food stamps, which we’d sell for fifty cents on the dollar. The first to the 10th of the month—depending on the last number of your ID—was the day your benefits hit. You had an ATM-type card to withdraw your money. So I walked down to Skid Row. I couldn’t resist. That night, I was back in the bush.

The gangs ran the drugs and drugs were everywhere. On San Julian was all the crack, on Sixth Street was all the weed, and on the corner of Seventh Street was all the heroin. Downtown L.A. was teeming.

But there were dry periods. There were people dealing right around the corner from the police station, and there were busts every day. For 20 days or so after a big bust, it would be like the Serengeti. Everyone would rob one another for what they had.

The days when I didn’t have money for crack were brutal. It was pushing the shopping cart, nine hours a day alongside Spider, collecting cans, bottles, copper, aluminum, and plastic, and selling them to these 24-hour scrap places. Pickings were always slim: People on Skid Row don’t tend to put their recyclables out at the curb. When other homeless people passed out in doorways, I would steal their full carts and take them to the scrap to claim their $15.

It was so unbearable and hot, just trying to make enough money not to be sick, that sometimes I would take my chance running into a Rite-Aid to down some cough medicine. Then I’d go back to my bush and sleep, because I couldn’t be awake for this reality.

I’d steal whatever else I could from Rite-Aid: shaving cream, razors, whatever. Mostly food, though—sweet, because I was an addict. I picked lollipops off the street because I needed sugar so badly. I ate out of garbage cans, too: People in rich downtown would throw away perfectly good food, and I also hoped that somebody would feel sorry for me and give me two or three dollars.

But there were a lot of resources on the street, including four major missions: the Midnight Mission, the L.A. Mission, the Union Mission, and the Salvation Army—all feeding breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Down on Skid Row, lots of people would come by in their pick-ups with bag lunches and snacks. In the morning, people from Korean and Chinese churches brought Krispy Kreme donuts. And at night, church groups and others would set up tables and feed you tacos and tortillas. I’m telling you, we ate good. I must have been the fattest crackhead ever—I was like 160 pounds.

Some dudes would come by in fancy cars and just throw out handfuls of one-dollar bills. And every Sunday there was Father Bill. He was a skinny old white priest with four big, black bodyguards. Homeless people would line up on this abandoned street, and Father Bill would come with a stack of bills. If you were in a wheelchair, you got a 50. Crutches got you a 20. With a cane, you got a 10. And if you were with your girlfriend or something, he might give you a five. If you were just a regular homeless bum like me, you got a dollar and a blessing. Sunday mornings meant waiting two hours in the sun for a blessing and a dollar from Father Bill.

I’m telling you, we ate good. I must have been the fattest crackhead ever—I was like 160 pounds.

In the end, one of my saving graces was the outreach organization People in Progress, which tried to get people into detoxes, rehabs, and housing. They brought me in, interviewed me about my drugs and history and made a bunch of phone calls. They sent me to this Christian place where I spent one night, before deciding it wasn’t working for me. I went back to my bush. But a seed had been planted. Also, at this point I just felt like I couldn’t get high the way I needed to get high.

Near the end of July in 100-degree heat, I was smoking with Spider out in a field when the ground started to shake. And I’d been praying for an earthquake—it was wild. It wasn’t a major quake but it must have been right under my ass, because the whole field was like a ripple.

As I walked back to my bush, something inside me said, “I’m done.” I called my sister in New York: “Julie, I’ll do anything, just get me the fuck out of here.” I begged her, “Get me a one-way, non-refundable Greyhound bus ticket,” and she did. She gave me the confirmation number, told me to pick up my ticket, and said, “I Western Union-ed you $40 so you can buy food along the way. It should take five days.” I promised that when I got to New York I would go to detox. I was willing: The streets had just kicked the shit out of me.

I spent my sister’s money on crack. I smoked up, got my ticket, and caught the bus. The next five days, kicking heroin and crack on the road, were brutal. With no money for food, I stole from convenience stores in Vegas, Denver—all the way to New York.

My sister tells me today that I got off that bus with a cane, wearing this crazy hat and looking like I was like 65 years old. I was 42. They took me to my cousin’s house, where I ate a shrimp Parmesan hero in the comfort of his living room and was just filled with remorse.

But the insanity wasn’t done yet. In the month that followed, I got into detox, left detox, spent some time in the psych ward, and then ended up jumping on a plane back to L.A. I bought crack again and returned for a brief stay in my bush. Nobody had messed with it. But a couple of days later I ran into People in Progress again. And eventually, thanks to my sister’s continuing generosity, I went to rehab.

The last time I used was August 29, 2008. It’s incredible. I met some guys in rehab who deeply inspired me and I found an epiphany there.

I returned to New York expecting at least five years in prison for my previous charge. I stood before the judge, a year since I’d last seen her. She sentenced me to two-to-four, mandated me to outpatient treatment, gave me a supervised release and a treatment program—and suspended the prison sentence.

From that moment, everything has been OK. I’ve rebuilt my life in sobriety and 12-step recovery, with the help of therapy. And I now work for the treatment program I was once mandated to. Ever since I was able to let go of my old life, I feel like I’ve been on a path that’s paved with gold.

I used to hear people in 12-step meetings say, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it,” and want to kick them in the teeth. But as I look back on it now, with the benefit of greater perspective and a new life, I see my dark past as my greatest asset.

This post originally appeared on Substance, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “How I Survived as a Homeless Crack Addict.”