By Tom Dougherty
“It was just like being in a big, warm fucking blanket, like everything’s OK,” Chris said.
Sitting on the rooftop of Anderson Hall at Temple University, Chris is telling a story with his backpack next to him and an electronic cigarette in hand. He’s wearing a button-down shirt with a green undershirt, shorts and knockoff Converses.
“I’ve lived like I’ve had tons of money and I’ve had no money,” he said. “I’ve lived in really nice places and in really shitty places, so I have so much to draw from now. It’s weird to think back to some of the places I’ve been at because it doesn’t seem like me.”
For some, the high is better than an orgasm. Chris, who declined to give his last name, acknowledges this, saying in some ways it is and in some ways it isn’t. Like an orgasm, it takes you to a different place. It helps you escape from whatever demons are eating away at your soul.
It’s relatable to being drunk, as both accomplish the same goal. Except there’s one difference, Chris says, which attracted him to heroin rather than alcohol and over any other drug he’s used.
“Alcohol is kind of like a detachment from everything,” he said. “Where heroin still makes you forget all your problems, but you feel more a part of life. You feel like you did something you really like, that really warm, fuzzy feeling. It’s a million times stronger than that.”
He was 23 when he first shot heroin, his third time using it. The first two incidences, he snorted it. Then it came down to getting more out of his money, so he began shooting, which wasn’t unheard of from Chris. He found heroin while he was in rehab for Dilaudid and fentanyl patches.
“They told me that those two were stronger than heroin,” Chris said. “So that kind of gave me the go-ahead to do heroin, just in my fucked up thinking.”
It’s getting a colder out as the temperature drops and the sun is setting. He has schoolwork to do and has plans to go to Samuel L. Paley Library to study. It’s getting busier on the rooftop as students head to their next classes. Chris is done class for the night.
Wishing to remain anonymous, Chris wanted to get to a quiet place. Somewhere not a lot of people will be because this lifestyle he’s describing, it’s no longer who he is. He’s been clean two years, has an associate’s degree and he’s working toward a bachelor’s degree at Temple.
Clearing his throat a few times, aware of his surroundings, Chris continues.
The first time he bought heroin was in West Philadelphia, but as he progressed he’d score it in Kensington, a place he describes similar to the Night of the Living Dead with zombies strung out on heroin. Now, he’s afraid to go to the neighborhood because he’s scared of being mugged.
Finding heroin in Kensington wasn’t hard. Chris described it as an “open-air drug market,” and he would find his loot by simply asking a junkie roaming the streets who had the best stuff around. In exchange, he would give the tipster a finder’s fee of a dollar.
As his heroin habit ramped up, he recalled a period of his life when he experimented with homelessness. He had lived in a shelter for about a week, he said, and also slept on the streets of Center City, where some people would offer him help finding a place to stay for a night.
Which, for someone like Chris, someone addicted to heroin, is hard. After all, his homeless stage of his life began after the first time he shot heroin.
“I stayed out for like a week and a half,” he said of the first time he was homeless. “I had an apartment to go home to, but I was testing what it would be like to be homeless, which is weird.”
Heroin started to take a grip of Chris’ life. He voluntarily entered rehab a few times before finally getting clean in 2012, and each time he went to rehab, it was entirely his choice. While he refused to talk about his arrest history, he insisted he was never forced to enter rehab.
“I got to a point where I was doing it right on the side of the street,” he said. “I didn’t give a fuck who saw me.”
The more Chris shot heroin, the more cognizant he became about using clean needles.
“The last five, six years, I wouldn’t use anything that wasn’t clean,” he said. “It scared me so many times after I used a dirty needle that I didn’t want to have to go through that. I was like, ‘Oh shit, did I just get AIDS?’ The scare factor finally got me.”
When he first started shooting, he’d buy his needles on the streets for $1. As easy as it was to score a bag of heroin in Kensington, finding syringes from dealers were just as accessible. Up until 2009 in Pennsylvania, buying syringes from a store required a prescription.
But even when the laws were changed to allow needles to be sold without prescription, Chris still bought his off the streets. It was cheaper to get them from a dealer than the pharmacy store. It was all about getting more out of his money, the only reason he started shooting to begin with.
If he couldn’t scrounge together the money, he’d resort to using dirty syringes he’d find on the ground in Kensington. There’s one goal in mind for an addict — getting high — and if comes down to using a recycled needle, that’s what Chris did. Where it came from wasn’t a deterrent.
“You get the drugs, and there’s a high in getting the drug because you finally got it,” he said. “Then you don’t have a needle, but you know if you don’t shoot it, you’re not going to get high. So you try to make up a dollar, but you look like shit that no one will give you money.”
Chris had all sorts of jobs, from working with food to painting, to support his heroin addiction. But at the end, heroin ruled responsibility and he’d lose his job. That’s when he would turn to panhandling at 15th Street Station, convincing people he didn’t have fare money for a train ride.
Some folks would give him change here and there. After a while, it added up and he’d be able to get his fix and a clean needle. But sometimes, it didn’t work. And when it didn’t, Chris turned to getting his needles off the ground, even though he knew the risks of using a dirty syringe.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight percent of new HIV infections in the United States in 2010 came from infection drug use via sharing contaminated needles. Of the 1,778 cases of hepatitis C reported in 2012, 75 percent admitted to injection drug use.
For Chris, he never contracted a disease — “I got really fucking lucky,” he said — but he knows people who have through Narcotics Anonymous or simply from other drug users he knows. He wasn’t in the dark when he used dirty needles. He knew what he was doing. It just didn’t matter.
Before he would use one, though, Chris would clean it out with bleach, so even when he used a dirty one he took some precautions. How much did that matter? He doesn’t know, but he’s just relieved he never acquired hepatitis or HIV. Others aren’t so lucky.
About a year into using heroin, Chris made a conscious decision. He was still going to shoot it, but only if he had clean syringes. It just so happened he developed a relationship with a Temple nurse from his panhandling days, and she was his main source for clean needles for a while.
“I was sick and asked her for money,” Chris said, adding she would give him full boxes of needles. “She said she had morphine and clean needles for me and was like, ‘Call me if you ever need needles. I’d rather give you needles than you use dirty needles.’”
Eventually the relationship evaporated and Chris had to find a new source for his needles. While he would still get them from the streets, there were a few times he used Prevention Point Philadelphia, the city’s only syringe exchange program operating under a 1992 executive order.
Mayor Ed Rendell issued the order, declaring HIV/AIDS a public health emergency. In doing so, PPP became a legally recognized exchange. Though federal funding bans on needle exchange programs were lifted in 2009, the bans were renewed in 2011. There are also state bans.
PPP, which Chris says is well known among junkies, hands out clean needles for dirty ones in an attempt to keep biohazards off the street. Its intention is to curb the spread of HIV and other diseases that can be spread through injection drug use such as hepatitis. It’s worked, too.
According to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s 2013 report, 5.4 percent of Philadelphians with HIV were infected as a result of injection drugs, which is about a 40 percent decline since the early 1990s when PPP’s syringe exchange program opened.
“Structurally, around the world, the only thing that actually works is syringe exchange,” Silvana Mazzella, director of programs at PPP, said. “Because people are already using syringes, if you give them clean ones you will reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.”
Chris wishes more people knew about Prevention Point, one of 231 needle exchange programs in the United States. The problem with these programs is its opponents view it as condoning drug use, when SEPs promote safe drug use in order to combat the spread of HIV and other diseases.
“The reality is I think that nobody likes seeing people use outside,” Mazzella said, adding education is the best form of changing the view on SEPs. “Nobody likes knowing people have addiction. But the reality is that if you also ask people if they think drug policy is fair, most people will say no.”
Mazzella, who has been at PPP for six and a half years, says there should be more drug treatment and a change in drug policies. She also said Philly is one of the few cities in the United States with a lot of treatment slots, but “it still can’t meet the need.”
“If there were more drug treatment, if there were policies that just didn’t put people in jail, you’d have a lot more people understand that drug use is like any other condition,” Mazzella said, who added PPP distributes about 1.5 million syringes per year.
“You just lose your ability to manage what you’re doing and if that results in using 15 syringes a day, you’re going to get them somewhere. You’re either going to pick up used ones or you’re going to get clean ones somewhere.”
Enter the need for clean needles. Both Mazzella and Chris conceded people are going to shoot heroin regardless of whether they have clean syringes. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2013, 22.7 percent of known drug abuse in the city was heroin users.
Breaking the thought that exchange programs condone drug use is a difficult task, but it can be done. Another problem is breaking through the belief all drug users are criminals, which has been the case — at least in the eyes of the law — in the U.S. since President Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971.
“It’s really hard to break through that stigma of drug users being really bad people,” Chris said. “Drug users know they’re bad already, you don’t have to tell them that. They’re probably their harshest critics.”
“I’ve never been this close to North Philly without using,” Chris said.
Chris is getting more comfortable talking. There’s less coughing, the details are coming more fluently. There’s even a smile here and a laugh there, as he recalls a dark period of his life. The sun is now set and the night sky set a peaceful mood on the rooftop, which Chris likes. It reminds him of Wyoming, where he went six years ago and describes as God’s country with the Grand Teton Mountains, the green, open fields and cute, little towns.
Outside of school, Chris isn’t working right now. His life revolves around getting his degree and staying clean. He says he’s desperately trying to find something. Problem is, he claims he hates Philadelphia and doesn’t want to stay here once he graduates. But his Temple degree comes first.
When he does graduate — he’s on track to finish in May 2015 — who knows where the world will take him. He may move back to California, where he was born but the cost of living there is a roadblock. His journey may take him to Wyoming or Colorado or somewhere else he won’t need a big, warm fucking blanket.