In America we let people float away

I have never watched a single episode of Breaking Bad. I know it won multiple Emmys and other prestigious awards. People would say, “oh, it’s an amazing show.  Once you get started, you cannot stop.”   And I would think —  it is a series about making crystal meth.  And once you get started, you cannot stop.

Their faces

The first time I saw the faces of young people damaged by a crystal meth addiction was in April 2010.  In Hollywood, our Hollywood 4WRD coalition spent three days conducting a “homeless registry,” which was a strategy back then to identify the most vulnerable homeless individuals in your community.  The protocol involved waking people up between 3 to 5 a.m., asking for permission to interview them, take a photo and add them to a list to prioritize for housing. 

One morning, after I did my first round of interviews, I went back out with Rudy Salinas, who worked for PATH at that time, to a hillside above a parking lot used for the Hollywood Bowl where a number of young people were known to sleep.  I remember I interviewed two of them, and it still breaks my heart to this day.  The young woman, in particular, had the telltale face of crystal meth addiction:  sunken cheeks, rotted teeth, red sores on her face.  The young man, Jonathan, said that he really missed his grandmother in Alabama and wished he could go home and see her.

In America we don’t try to reconnect people with their families.  In Trieste, they would shake their head in disbelief that we fail to understand how important this is.

Where is Reggie?

So, I return to the story I started in my last blog when I recounted the encounter I had with a young man, Reggie, in the courtyard at Union Station.  He had just been released from Twin Towers and had no money, no cellphone, no place to sleep and an appointment to meet with a probation officer several days later in Long Beach.   Catch up with this story here to learn how I connected with his mother in Northern California. 

I am a huge believer that to even begin to help any individual you find in Los Angeles who is experiencing homelessness, you must try to find the family.  No one can give me a convincing argument as to why this does not make sense.

I have now had the pleasure to speak with Reggie’s mom on a couple of occasions and all I can do is listen and absorb the pain and frustration she has experienced over the last 27 years.

The Story

Reggie’s mom told me that he first was exposed to meth when he was 12 when they lived in Idaho Springs, Colorado.   There was a young woman, 19 years old, in their neighborhood. She would invite kids to her house to party.   She was called Bambi because “she walked around like a limp deer.”   

Mom didn’t know this had happened until she got a call from the school that he had missed a week.  But then, it seemed, tragically, that the downward spiral  that would now dominate the rest of his life had begun.  Meth is considered  one of the most addicting and deadly substances out there. 

Mom decided to get away from Idaho Springs and they moved to Lakewood CO, a suburb of Denver.    He started back to school and he joined a metal band.  “Music has always been really important to him,” she says.    But,  she noted, he tended to gravitate to friends who were involved in meth. 

When he was in junior high, “we put him in a program for troubled kids through the police,” she said.  “It had counseling and structure.”  That didn’t work.  Things got worse, and he rebelled against authority. 

As she thinks back to this time she remembers, “when he was straight, he was the sweetest guy you could ever know.  But when he got high, he was awful.”

Mom moved to Central City, Colorado and got a job working in a casino.  Reggie and his girlfriend, who was also involved with drugs, ended up having a baby.     After a very tragic incident when the girlfriend and her mother were in a horrific car accident in which the mother died, the girlfriend decided to get sober once and for all and left Reggie.  Reggie has not seen his son for 16 years, though he has paid child support from his benefit checks during this time.

“I decided to move to Louisiana to get the two of us away from this,” mom said.  Her company transferred her there and she went to work on a riverboat casino, but soon Reggie developed an online relationship with a woman in Texas and he moved there. She was also a drug addict and they got married.  They moved to Albuquerque New Mexico and were soon divorced.

Mom moved back to California in 2008 to take care of her dad, who had had a stroke. Reggie came back also and finished his GED in Sacramento.  “He was the class valedictorian,” Mom remembers.    Reggie decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue his music and his mother supported him as he entered classes at Musician’s Institute in Hollywood.  “He is very talented, he loves music, but he just can’t stay committed,” she said. The counselor called her and said “he has potential” but the drug addiction was standing in the way of his success.

Intersection of meth addiction and mental illness

Reggie is receiving Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) which suggests that there is a diagnosis of mental illness in his history.  There is evidence that use of meth can induce psychosis that mimics what is experienced in schizophrenia, or could stimulate onset of schizophrenia.

One time when he came home to Sacramento,  Reggie told his mom that she had to take him to the local FBI office.    “They’re using me,” he told his mom.  “The aliens have implanted something in my brain.”  She took him there because he insisted.  She waited in the car and eventually one of the agents came out and asked her, “does your son use drugs?”

I asked her if she felt there had been any attempt – in all the times he had been to jail, and prison – to introduce him to a recovery program?  Apparently not.  Even though he would enter rehab, he would always walk out.  “It’s been so stressful on us,” she said.  “When he gets high, he is very scary.” 

I asked her – knowing what she knows now — is there anything she would’ve done differently.  “We tried everything we could think of,” she says, wistfully.  “We didn’t have the money.  We could’ve put him in a two-year program if we had the money.  That cost $30,000.”

I asked her, “when was the last time you had contact with him?”

“It was several months ago, just when the pandemic was starting,” she recalls. He called her and said he had just gotten out of jail.  He had a place to live.  But he told her, “there are people walking on the roof, and I just can’t take it.” 

We let people float

Steve Lopez wrote a column in June 2019 where he followed outreach workers throughout Skid Row and up into the Hollywood Hills to check on individuals whose lives were wasting away from their meth addiction.  “Drugs are a booming underground economy with open-air visibility, and nearly a third of homeless people report having either a serious mental illness, a substance abuse issue or both, “he wrote.  And some suggest that percentage is low.

Tomorrow Reggie is supposed to be in court at 8:30 a.m.

Reggie’s court appearance is scheduled for tomorrow

What is different about the American system as compared to the system in Trieste is that no one feels accountable for any outcome that would improve Reggie’s life trajectory.   He does not have one person – a social worker or case manager — who comes alongside him to help.  Parents and loved ones are sidelined; with no way to stay connected except to keep checking the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Inmate Locator for any sign of life.

In America, we let people struggling with their mental illness and drug addiction float, untethered to any type of meaningful support or anchor.  I see Reggie now like the astronaut in the song Major Tom…floating in the universe.  And his family, who desperately wants to save him, has no one to turn to for help

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you “Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do”

Lyrics: David Bowie

10 thoughts on “In America we let people float away”

  1. Kerry,
    I so appreciate your consistent & persistent labor of love for the homeless. I think families need to be empowered more with counseling and tools in how to deal with family members who are addicted. So many give up and fear for the other vulnerable family members. Having walked this road personally with my son—not meth but heroin—I know the heartache and the hopelessness (except for God’s Grace). I always did my best to stay connected and let him I know I loved him which has definitely paid off and the turnaround in his life.

    1. Judy, I just keep learning about how hard this is for families, and how little support there is. I am trying to learn more about why we don’t do more in this space — am committed to advocate for more resources.

  2. This is the strongest testimony out there for why #HIPAAHandcuffs must be removed. It’s time for this country to stop worrying about protecting people who have been left to die in our streets rights to privacy. We are “protecting” them from the very people they need the most.

  3. I’m so glad you are documenting in this fashion KM. Putting a name/face to these stories gets us away from the statistics that allow us to ignore at best. Thank you.

  4. Absolutely on target, in every way. What a tragic and beautiful piece of writing. In America, the lives of the homeless are diminished to a societal annoyance. The lives of the individuals who are struck by dual-diagnosis are only statistics. The human family that has suffered the loss of their loving child is left to manage their grief and trauma alone. You identified the problem, there is no systemic accountability for the legislative and treatment groups. The family reconciliation element is presumed a lost cause.

    I am a hospice social worker, some of my patients and their families are the people you serve. I have seen some remarkable progress, at the end of life and I have wondered what would be possible if they were caught before the addiction was left to flourish? I believe that if we were to look for a common denominator, we would find unresolved grief, resulting from a loss that was perceived as unbearable. A traumatic loss, never identified or treated.

    Your work is the most humanistic I have found. Please don’t stop.

    1. Mary — your comments are so encouraging to me. I cannot for the life of me understand why we marginalize families in the face of crises related to mental illness and substance abuse. I perceive it as an inconvenience — it would add too many voices into the system, and it would lead to a demand for greater accountability. Families are advocates…but they cannot advocate when they are left in the dark as to where their loved one is or not even consulted by the professionals who are there “to help.” On the flip side, families and friends can help. They can offer support and structure and a place to live and encouragement and resources. We simply must reverse this practice in the United States. Thank you for your work as a hospice social worker. Please keep in touch.

  5. I recently watched a movie about a successful program offered in Miami, Dade County. Has there been any effort to introduce this in the LA area?

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