When Drugs Exhaust Compassion: A Call to Action

Over the past year, I’ve been observing the changes on the streets of Bloomington. (see posts here and here).  A rise in homelessness and my increased interactions with those who call our streets home have called me to really tap into the root of love, and pray for the creativity to help heal some small part of the brokenness.  The problem has changed dramatically this past year, but my prayer remains the same: make me an instrument of healing and hope.  

A version of the piece below was printed on July 3, 2017 in the Herald Times, and can be found  along with a related editorial.

********

Compassion.  That is what threatens to escape me lately, looking out my window at the growing crowd of addicts, as I struggle to understand how this epidemic could have ballooned so quickly into a swarm of humans who have sunk so low none of us seem to know how to help.  I’ve hurried past them not knowing what they will do next, or if I will safely arrive at my destination.  When I am at risk of losing my compassion, it signals the moment I am called to act.  

We have labeled this problem a homeless problem.  When I moved here, I knew each of the chronically homeless people by name.  I knew a little about each of their lives, and I would share a conversation or a cup of coffee with them frequently. Local downtown restaurant owners would let them come in and warm up with a free cup of coffee and a dry, clean bathroom.  We were a community who cared.  Midwestern hospitality.  

The numbers began to grow as those in need of services sought them here, where they could be found.   Many thought just doing a little more of the same would keep pace, but the problem had changed, and we were not ahead of it.  

In the past week: 9 people have overdosed in theimmediate vicinity of the Habitat office, our staff has witnessed multiple drug deals, needles have started to appear in the alley alongside our office, I have been threatened, people have been urinating on our building in the middle of the day, and volunteers have started calling to ask if it is safe for them to come to our office to drop off a donation or show up to volunteer.  While there are addicts who never become violent, the group appears to escalate together on frequent occasion.

This is not a homeless problem, it is a drug problem.  The drug epidemic is not unique to Bloomington, it is nationwide and growing.  When using, an addict frequently does not even remember the actions they took while high, and they behave in unpredictable and often disrespectful or unsafe ways.  Those kind-hearted restaurant owners soon found their bathrooms in states so awful it seemed someone had been there just to create a disaster.  Losing their customers and staff to such situations, they unsurprisingly stopped providing such hospitality.  

The summer months on Kirkwood used to be filled with mothers pushing baby carriages into the library and on to lunch, summer-term students shopping in boutiques, and new IU families eagerly attending orientation.  Kirkwood has been empty this year, a stark contrast to even 2 years ago.  People don’t feel safe downtown, not because they are scared of people without homes, but because they are scared of people using drugs.  After almost being assaulted the other evening by 5 men who were visibly in a mind-altered state, I feel shaky walking the streets alone.  Our office volunteers and staff at Habitat feel at risk, and we are arguably a group who has spent more time, and has more experience working and loving the impoverished in this community than many who typically walk Kirkwood.  This issue at its core is not an issue about homes, it is about drugs.  

The problem at hand is bigger than any one social service agency, because the epidemic is not single-faceted. This epidemic is a rock pile of boulders piled one atop the other where mental illness, and joblessness have picked away at human dignity creating fertile ground to incubate addictions.  Where the afflictions have buried each individual beneath a weight so heavy they can no longer see the light at the end of their tunnel.  These folks likely wake up each day wanting to get clean, wanting to do better, yet find themselves too addicted physically to change.  In observing the growing masses there are some who are homeless, and others who are clearly not.  There are those who come down just to get their fix, leaving again soon after, and others who are preying on those at the bottom:  dealing and making money from them, and then there are those who seemingly can not get up, who stay the entire day and overnight as well, their bodies barely functioning.  

It is no wonder they feel hopeless— I’ve met privately with 6 different experts who know addictions, homelessness, and mental health and not one of them has a short-term solution, or even one which begins to address the safety issues at hand presently.  As a community, we seem to have given up on our downtown, choosing not to walk the streets because we feel too threatened.  

Giving up is not acceptable.  Looking for only the obvious solutions is not either, those have been exhausted.  More police, more arrests, more food and water have not helped the issue.

We are Bloomington: the most creative, community-oriented, and solution-focused city in Indiana.  We have invested millions in a beautiful downtown, and we want it to thrive.  We believe in caring for our people, even when they are temporarily at their bottom.  We know how to offer people an opportunity to build their dignity by investing in solutions themselves, and we have thousands of people who I believe will volunteer their time towards a solution that actually works, but first we need to come together and resolve to make a change, and it must change quickly.  We need to increase safety downtown, create a viable solution for those who are addicted, and create structures which allow those who want to be a part of our community to invest in it thereby connecting them to our fabric and rebuilding their dignity where we are able.  There is a solution which treats those using drugs with respect and compassion and simultaneously asks them to do the same for the community they call home.  The community which offers them the services they need and asks them to participate in the solution.  I hope to take part in a solution that at its core respects people enough to allow them to rebuild their dignity by participating in their healing.

I urge you to take action and participate in finding creative and kind solutions to this challenge.  We need a leader for this difficult issue.  If you are concerned, reach out to your local government representatives and community leaders, or become one yourself.  There needs to be a balanced, compassionate team of solution-focused citizens teaming up for this solution and equipping the experts we have in our community to collaborate with us for a solution which gets Bloomington back to the thriving, connected community we all knew.  As I prepare to move overseas for the next year, I am aware that I can play only a small role in this immediate solution, but I am committed to doing at least that.