Alaska News

Homeless in Anchorage, caught in brutal grip of Spice

It's hard to look at him, and it's hard not to. Lying on the gurney, his face turned upward, his eyes glazed and fixed, without activity. His upper arms lay against him, outside the sheet that covers his body, pale and white, motionless. The monitors are silent; the hospital staff has finished for now.

Young and thin, pale and slightly contorted from his long exposure to the drug, it is hard to imagine this frail body as that of a young man in his late 20s. His bloodied and severed clothing litter the floor of the treatment area as though a great struggle had ensued, and in a way it had.

I am alone standing next to his bed and wondering what brought him here. No family, no friends to counsel him, no one to reach out and stop him. He could have come here for any number of reasons: accident, misadventure, the actions of others. But it was none of these things.

It was from using Spice, a synthetic and once-legal drug in Alaska that has increasingly shown up in the state, especially among the poor, the hurting, the desperate. Many have overdosed; some have died. Tonight it harmed another Anchorage resident.

Meeting Jon

It's hard to piece together the path that led Jon here, and me along with him. I had known him about 10 weeks. I met him at a downtown shelter for those in need of a hot meal and the fellowship of others on the same day Mayor-elect Ethan Berkowitz came to speak, asking for ideas of what could be done to address the problems of the homeless. Jon got his tray and sat down in front of me, his back to the speakers.

Wearing a camo jacket and baseball cap, it was hard to see his face, buried behind long, curling red hair. As people around him offered ideas, Jon ate quietly. After several minutes of concentrating on the task at hand, he reached for his napkin, wiped his mouth and took a deep breath.

"How was lunch?" I asked, smiling. He looked up at me before turning back to the tray without a word. I was suddenly embarrassed for being so presumptive. The next few moments were awkward, at least for me. As he stood to go, lifting his tray, he hesitated and glanced at the apple still on his tray, untouched. He lifted it, turned to me and made a gesture, lifting it a bit higher and then placing it on the table in front of me as if to say, "Have this."

Without a word, he walked to the place where trays were to be set and cleaned, and headed out. I listened to the speakers but couldn't get my mind off the apple and its previous owner.

In the week that followed, Jon showed up at the Downtown Soup Kitchen where I volunteered. As a seminary intern living in Anchorage for the summer, my church had given me the opportunity of finding new avenues of service as well as continuing existing efforts. Near and dear to their hearts was the Downtown Soup Kitchen, or the DSK, as it is sometimes called. Located on the quieter side of the downtown at the corner of Cordova Street and Third Avenue, the Downtown Soup Kitchen is an oasis for those in need, I learned, and I was excited to join in.

Among so many skilled volunteers and staff members moving about the building with their varied jobs, I had to admit to Vicki Martin, the program and volunteer director, that I was nervous, almost overwhelmed. So much being done; so many people in need.

She laughed and reminded me that these volunteers had been there for a long time, devoted to their service. I settled on the clothes counter, where donated clothes are given to those in need. A simple wooden counter inside the modest lobby of their "shower-house" ministry, it was here that needy "neighbors" would come to ask for clothes or other essentials. I also learned how to take clothes from "neighbors," wash them when asked, help them with hygiene supplies and even just hand them a cup of coffee or tea.

"Sometimes that is all they need, and sometimes they need more," Martin said. She smiled and handed me off to another staffer before moving on to the many tasks it takes to provide neighbors with a hot bowl of soup and a sturdy sandwich in the middle of the day.

'We worry about you'

Standing behind the counter of the "shower-house" side of the building, I saw Jon again. I had not known his name until that moment, when he was addressed by Joyce Matthews, the soup kitchen's shower and hospitality-house manager.

"Good morning, Jon," she said in a welcoming and assured voice. "Can I get you a cup of coffee?" He nodded with a slight smile, perhaps because she remembered how he liked his coffee in the morning; she passed him the sugar so he could make it the way he always did.

"Socks?" she asked, seeming to know what he needed. Her warmth was infectious. Jon did not speak right away but looked at his feet and then back at her, nodding in the affirmative. When she brought back a new pair of warm, dry socks, he bent his head forward slightly, tipping his baseball cap a bit as if to say, "thank you."

"We worry about you, Jon," she said suddenly. We all stood there for a moment, not sure what he would say. He nodded again, giving her a brief smile before moving off to the sidewalk to try on his new socks. She let out a sigh as he turned his back and, for a moment, her smile faded a bit. It returned when the next person stepped up to the counter.

Sharing coffee

With morning showers, laundry loads and clothes handouts suspended while hot meals made by the small army of volunteers in the kitchen were distributed, I often sat down with soup and a sandwich. Conversations were interesting and gracious, asking me where I was from, what a "Mennonite" was, what brought me to Anchorage. Their stories were revealing -- stories of places that I had not heard of, even when I previously lived and worked in Alaska, stories of rural life, of villages and families and their traditions. People talked about what brought them to the state if not born here, and what brought them to Anchorage if they were born elsewhere in Alaska.

One lunchtime, about two weeks into my work, Jon came up to the table and sat down across from me. I was surprised at first, but his sudden appearance did nothing to suggest he was in any way more comfortable with me as a partner in conversation. Jon ate his lunch as though I wasn't there.

As I prepared to go back to work and stood up, he looked up and said, "How was lunch?" before looking down again, a brief smile crossing his face. I couldn't think of a clever thing to say, and so I just smiled and reminded him I expected to see him the next morning for coffee.

Later that same day, walking from the Downtown Soup Kitchen to the Fifth Avenue Mall, I crossed paths with Jon again. Sitting on the sidewalk outside the door, I waved and went inside while he slowly rolled a cigarette. When I came out, I turned toward the Downtown Transit Center, and Jon was still there. I turned and asked him if there was a good place nearby to get a cup of coffee. In a clear and certain voice, he described a place on the way to the bus terminal. Grateful, I asked Jon if he wanted a cup. He politely accepted, and we walked towards the Anchorage Center for the Performing Arts, stopping in the shadow of its southern corner, stepping into the lobby of the coffee shop. In truth, I had been there many times but was glad he suggested it. I ordered my usual and offered him anything on the menu he would like. While his order was not exactly like mine, it was, penny for penny, the same cost.

We sat and talked about where we both were from. He and I were both from rural Southern states. He talked about his family briefly. We were both without family or relatives nearby, lacking a safety net should we fall. I realized that I at least had a supportive church community to turn toward; he did not. He openly talked about his attempts to escape the loneliness of his life on the streets and the desperation of his attempts to get a stable place to live and a job working with his hands. His descriptions of trying to find a safe, warm place to pitch a tent or tarp during winter were harrowing. He told me these things without bravado, but rather as one traveler informing another.

A piece of me wanted to give him a pep talk about "saying no to drugs" and yet a piece of me understood his desire to escape pain and frustration. Where does one turn when the next few hours are hard to face, let alone the next day or week?

The afternoon waning, I had to go, so I assured him I would be there in the morning at the Downtown Soup Kitchen. He grinned and waved, saying, "Thanks for the coffee. I enjoyed it." I still remember the smile on his face, the clear and direct voice indicating a clear mind and an absence of drugs, at least for the afternoon. The conversation had transformed my view of Jon from a victim of circumstance to a person much like me but without the loving support of my church or my community.

As the weeks went on, there was no miracle to solve his problems. Some mornings he would appear at the Downtown Soup Kitchen, his camo jacket soiled and wet and his baseball cap drooping from the damp, but with some clarity in his face. Others mornings, he was found asleep in the edges of the neighborhood, still high. On more than one occasion, he showed up with bruises on his face and his backpack gone.

During one of his clearer days at lunch, we talked about the drugs and specifically Spice. He described it as the opposite of marijuana.

"Where marijuana makes you feel a bit mellow," he explained, "Spice is 100 times more of a high and when you use it, it makes everything OK. It makes you feel like nothing can hurt you and everything is the way you wish it could be."

He added: "It has terrible side effects, though. I don't recommend it. I don't think anyone should use it. It really is terrible. And these people dying? Someone is cutting the stuff with something else, to make it go further." He shook his head in disgust.

Suddenly, things seemed to change. Jon showed up clear and alert one morning a few days after another memorial service for a homeless person who died from Spice use.

"I have a job," he said in a bright cheerful voice. "I usually go for an early cup of coffee … The guy who runs the place knows I am not a customer, but lets me fill my cup. One morning he actually brought me an application and said, 'If you can get here regular enough to drink coffee, I bet you can get here regular enough to work."

Suddenly, Joyce Matthews and the other volunteers that have known him are smiling, too. There haven't been many victories lately and it is good to share in one. Jon picks up his laundry, done by Downtown Soup Kitchen volunteers, and he signs up for a shower for Monday morning to be ready for the start of his new job.

After a hearty lunch later in the morning, we walk over to a local hairstylist for an inexpensive but professional cut and Jon finishes off his new look with a long, detailed shave, removing the fiery red beard that had grown over the last few months.

I want to believe everything will be OK. I want to believe that at least a few people can escape this treadmill that tortures so many in Anchorage.

"There is hope," I tell myself. "There is hope." It is a prayer I find myself repeating over the next few days.

But hope, like stability and sobriety, are hard to hold on to. I'm never sure what it is that makes the promise of better days so hard to hold on to for some people. I am lucky to not know what it feels like to wrestle with drugs and alcohol. It is useless to moralize or criticize others who face challenges I cannot understand. I cannot know what drives people to continue in ways that hurt them, any more than I can understand what makes me repeat the mistakes of my own past.

Out of control

As usual, I drove home Friday night down Fourth Avenue to Gambell Street. At a gravel parking lot on the north side of the intersection, I spotted Jon. At first I didn't recognize him. So often had I seen him in his camo jacket, smudged and concealed. I had to remind myself that this young man, dressed neatly, cleanly shaven and sporting his new haircut was the same young man.

Walking away from the neighborhood near Karluk Street and the city jail, he lurched forward as though stabbed in the back, his feet dragging, his legs inching forward and his arms outstretched as high as his shoulders. Even from 50 feet away, I could hear him gasping and choking as though something had lodged in his throat, and perhaps something had.

Sometimes his body twisted as though he was struggling for breath, and then his face would turn red and stretch, contorted as he continued to vomit. I pulled into the parking lot and got out of the van.

When I got closer, his arms swung out toward me, as if to prevent me from coming closer. "Jon, we need to go to the hospital and have you checked out. Get in the van," I said.

He looked at me, his green eyes wildly staring. Regardless of the violent movement of his limbs, he looked like he wanted help. Desperate and scared, I realized he could not tell me what had happened or what I could do. It quickly became apparent his efforts to control the direction of his inching forward would not match that of his efforts to turn his body, all the while his arms flexing and twisting.

It was as if two bigger, invisible men stood on either side of him, pulling him in opposite directions. He was helpless, a marionette on strings. I moved behind him and edged him toward the passenger door, now open. After making sure he was safely in the seat, I placed the seat belt over him and clicked it into place. His eyes seemed calmer, at least for the moment, as we drove to the emergency room.

Hospital staff approached at the emergency room entrance. Seeing the state Jon was in, they quickly ushered us both into the ER, separating us only in the last few feet of the journey from lobby as they moved him onto a gurney. Orders were called out as doctors tried to determine his condition and how to proceed. Jon had begun to struggle violently.

Their compassion and professionalism impressed me. Jon, it seemed, was not a "homeless person" or a "junkie," as I feared he might be received. And before long, he went from complete rebellion to sedated quietness.

Elizabeth, the emergency room nurse who interviewed me for the intake information, was calm and patient. When she asked who I was, I told her "I'm his ... friend." Unsure whether that was enough information, I told her I was a pastoral intern at the local Mennonite Church and a volunteer at the Downtown Soup Kitchen. As I described what happened, I could see her eyes moisten and her face flush.

"You can sit with him, if you like," she said, gesturing toward the treatment area where he lay silently. His body, which only minutes ago thrashed about, now reclined on the gurney, relaxed.

After about an hour of sitting and watching for any signs of revival, I decided to go home and come back later, hoping time would allow him to rest and allow me to collect my nerves. "We're always open," Elizabeth said with a smile. "Come back whenever you want. We're trying to find a bed in the ICU for him and I know he'd be glad to see you once we move him upstairs."

Rebuffed

I returned the next day, only to find that although he had been moved up to intensive-care unit, I was not allowed to see him. "You're not family," said the ICU nurse as she studied her clipboard. I was at a loss to explain why I should be an exception to her rules. I wanted to ask her, what happens to people who don't have family? Do they not get visitors? I explained to her that I was a pastoral intern with the church, but she shook her head before I finished my sentence.

"We don't allow 'non-family" visitors," she said as she turned on her heel and walked back to ICU. "Besides," she said, calling over her shoulder, "he's not even sure of your last name."

Without a course of action, I entered the elevator nearby and headed back to the first floor. Exiting the doors, I bumped into another ER nurse from the night before.

"Any news?" she asked, remembering me. I described my encounter in the ICU, and a frown grew on her face.

"Before you came in last night, we had five cases of Spice-related emergencies," she said. "After you left, three more people came in non-responsive."

I heard someone say on the radio the other day that the influx of Spice among Anchorage's homeless had been described as an epidemic, but it should be called a war because so many people were dying.

Who cares?

Rain is starting to fall as I leave the hospital. I drive back across the city, stopping for a cup of coffee at a local gas station. Mechanically constructing a cup of coffee with creamer and sugar, lost in my own thoughts, I hear people in the next row of the store discussing the issue of the homeless in Anchorage and relating an unconfirmed fact:

Fairbanks and Juneau both have more beds for detox and treatment than Anchorage. I don't know if that is true, but I do know that there are people worth helping here, people like Jon and scores of others.

As each day passed I would finish my work with the Downtown Soup Kitchen and journey back to the hospital, determined to see Jon. I was surprised that on my next visit, a different nurse not only greeted me at the entrance to the ICU but walked back to Jon's room with me, apologizing for how I'd been treated on previous visits. She shrugged and said, "I realized after Jon started asking for you that you might be the only person to tell us if he is returning to normal after his seizures."

Entering the room, I saw Jon sitting upright in a chair. He smiled but was unable to speak.

"He is still sedated," the nurse explained. The nurses' assistant, who had just finished feeding him dinner, got up from the chair adjacent to him and motioned for me to sit. From behind my back, I revealed a cup of that coffee he had ordered the day we sat down together near the downtown transit center. His smile strengthened and I knew that he was still connecting the dots, understanding some of his past and, perhaps, something of his current situation. For all his efforts, Jon struggled to focus and keep his eyes open, and so I made my visit short, promising to return the next evening. I did, and I returned every night that week, sometimes even stopping in quickly at lunchtime to ask about his progress.

At one point, he looked up from that now-routine cup of coffee I brought and said, quite without warning, "You're one of the only people I trust and that seems to care about me." I was stunned, and quickly reminded him of the people at the Downtown Soup Kitchen. He shook his head and agreed, but continued, "Yeah, but you came to see me here. You encourage me about the job and about kicking this habit …" His voice trailed off. I wanted to tell him what was about to happen, but I wasn't ready. I wished he could just stay in the hospital, being fed and sleeping in a nice, clean, dry room, with people to look after him.

I didn't want to let the idea of his success, Jon's chance to work and take care of himself, dissolve. Jon did improve. His vision improved, his speech returned bit by bit. After a week of visits to the hospital it was time to have a difficult discussion with him.

His doctor and hospital social worker wanted to meet, so we gathered in his room to talk. After talking about his goals of returning to work and trying to make a living for himself, I let him know that several people in the community had offered to help with short-term housing assistance until he got his first paycheck and even offered to make sure he had meals and laundry for the first month while he got back on his feet. He was surprised and happy to hear about it. Then I told him I couldn't stay to see him get back to work: My time in Anchorage was ending, and I had to return to California for several months to complete my graduate degree. He seemed a bit confused and a bit unhappy, but I reminded him that he got himself the job and that others who had offered support would help him adjust.

He shook his head in agreement. I knew from years of this type of work that it is never the single person's effort that creates success, but the many, many hands that craft long-term solutions for people struggling in any number of situations.

When I came to see Jon the next day, he was gone. He had checked himself out. The new team of nurses in the wing had no information on where he had gone.

As the handful of days remaining for me passed, I kept my eyes open for him -- at the Downtown Soup Kitchen, along the streets of the downtown, even the parking lot where I found him that night. He was nowhere to be found.

These days, my friends at the Downtown Soup Kitchen say Jon occasionally returns for coffee in the morning, but the details of where he spends his days remain a mystery. Every week I check in with DSK staff and they tell me about how things are going, and hear my predictable question: "Any news about Jon?"

Looking back, I wish I had known the day I sat down to listen to Mayor-elect Ethan Berkowitz what I know now. In hindsight, I wish I had asked for more treatment beds, a plan to address the large population of those struggling with substance abuse on the streets of Anchorage, or what it would take to declare a "federal disaster area" in terms of substance abuse.

I'm a pretty simple guy and I know there are people who know more about these issues, but I hope those people can find the will to address this. I finish graduate studies soon, and now think I will apply to the University of Alaska Anchorage's doctoral program in counseling with an emphasis in indigenous cultures, hoping to one day work here and serve here.

As Matthews from the Downtown Soup Kitchen said to me one day: "These 'neighbors' are someone's brother or sister, someone's child. No one should have to live like this if they don't want to. I really believe there are enough people in Anchorage that care enough to help."

I want to believe her, I really do. I saw the faces of people who have come here for a better life or a new chance, but now are struggling. I saw Native elders and their children, and young people. I saw people searching desperately for work, hoping for a way to sustain themselves. I keep praying for the Downtown Soup Kitchen, hoping Jon will come back, wearing his camo jacket and asking for a cup of hot coffee. God be with him until he finds his way back.

Craig Headley was a pastoral intern with Prince of Peace Mennonite Church in Anchorage this summer, and is a seminary student in California. He is finishing a Master of Divinity degree and is applying to UAA to pursue a doctorate in counseling. People seeking information about donating to or volunteering for the DSK can contact the kitchen at 907-258-0557 or fill out a volunteer form here.

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