Chris Arnade was a trader on Wall Street for 20 years until 2012 when he left to focus on photography. Having been involved in a project with Hunts Point Alliance for Children, he got to know some of the local residents in Hunts Point, South Bronx, the poorest neighbourhood in New York City, who were trapped in poverty, addiction and prostitution. With their permission he has been taking their pictures and sharing their stories. His ‘Faces of Addiction’ series documents the lives of these people who have become his friends.
Some people might prefer to look the other way and pretend other people aren’t living like this. But the harsh truth is they are and I hope instead the stories on this page inspire more people to support harm reduction and decriminalisation for drugs and prostitution, which Chris Arnade also believes is the best legislation for people who take drugs and people in the sex trade, and in addition, Basic Income, which is doable in most of the Western world and research proves is the best way to end poverty.
All people are equal and although all people deserve the same chances in life, we all know they do not get them. Being that this is not and likely never will be an ideal world that won’t happen perfectly, but it can be made better than it is and people do not have to live in poverty, go hungry and become malnourished, live in freezing conditions that may kill them, die because they cannot afford medical treatment and so much more can be avoided, all effects of poverty can be eradicated, if there is Unconditional Basic Income.
For people addicted to drugs, their lives would be so much safer with reduced blood-borne viruses and drug-related deaths if drugs were decriminalised and more harm reduction services such as safe consumption rooms were invested in. This also benefits wider communities with less drug-related crime for example, and less paraphernalia left in public areas.
And for people selling sex, they would be in less danger – and not viewed as ‘easy targets’ by criminals – because they would have the protection of the police if they were victims of crime under decriminalisation. They would have all rights as afforded to all other workers so would be able to self-organise working together for safety, which research shows is less dangerous than working alone. Relationships could be better established with outreach and harm reduction services, which often also offer assistance to women seeking to leave the industry, such as the provision of counselling services and referrals to treatment centres for those who have drug and/or alcohol addiction issues. And at that time when they are likely to be trying to find other employment, they will not be hindered by criminal records with charges relating to prostitution, which is something that keeps many people trapped when they do want to leave.
The first picture of Chris’s I saw and that drew me into viewing his ‘Faces of Addiction’ series was of a man and a kitten. Although I do like cats, I was drawn by what Chris had written, which showed me that he is someone who accepts people as they are, does not judge and does not profess to know what is right or good for others. So I will show that picture and his accompanying story first.
‘Yesterday I walked into an abandoned building, past eight people shooting heroin into their veins, past piles of discarded toys and clothes, and captured five newborn kittens and their mother. A shirtless addict who had just pissed into a pail in the corner helped me.
I drove the six cats to a home fifteen miles away to be cared for by a couple whose lives are in order. Thanks to the amazing generosity of many readers most of the veterinarian bills will be covered.
I felt for the first time in a long time that I had done something unquestionably good.
Still whenever my path detours into kittens I get an uneasy feeling that comes from this: Helping animals can be a distraction from helping people.
We do it because helping animals is ethically easy.
Helping people is not. Especially addicts. Our first impulse is to “save them,” but that is an arrogant presumption that we know better. I started to go down that path with Shelly only to realize I was doing it as much for myself as for her. The only person we can save is ourselves.
Eventually we realize the best we can do is stand by in a non-judgmental fashion making ourselves available should a person decide they want help.
Yet that is a thankless process that renders us feeling inert, with a nagging sense that we can and should do more.
So we save kittens, which is the right thing to do.
It becomes wrong if we use it as a way to forget the larger problem.’
‘Nicky, from Baltimore, is now homeless and a heroin addict. She was standing on the same busy street corner as her two friends Vanessa and Mary Alice, waiting for the guys buying liqour on the way home from work.
Prostitution gets the attention, but most of these women are driven by their addiction. I have found almost every one of the heroin addicts to be thoughtful, empathetic, and too trusting, holding huge emotional pain they are looking to numb.
Nicky, when asked how she wanted to be described said, “don’t judge me till you get to know me! That holds for all of us girls out here.”‘
‘”Perhaps if people see my picture on the computer they can pray for me. I am getting too old for this. When you’re tired you’re tired.” Below is what I wrote on Millie last time I saw her:
Millie, 40, got into heroin at the age of twenty-three, and has been addicted since. For the last seventeen years she’s been in and out of rehab and jail (possession and prostitution) and mothered four children. Her first three children she gave to her mother, and when her mother passed, to her sister. The sister, unable to support them, gave them to the state.
When she found out she was pregnant with a fourth, a little over a year ago, she entered a methadone clinic. “I was almost always clean, I really wanted it for myself and my child. When I was seven months I slipped, I did a speedball. The baby was born premature and addicted to crack.” This child was also taken by the state.
Soft spoken but direct when I asked what her dream was she said, “I just want my kids. I can’t ever do crack or heroin again. I can’t.”‘
‘Shay ran away from her group home at fourteen. By fifteen she had met a pimp who brought her to Hunts Point. “Money was the motivation, not drugs.”
She left four years later to raise two girls she had given birth to. They had been placed with her mother in Brooklyn.
She was back in Hunts Point within two years. “Pimps bred me to be the way they were. This is what I know.”
Now twenty six, Shay stands on the same street corner as Barbara almost every afternoon and evening.
“I keep trying to get away, but at the end of the day this is what I know. As a woman I feel like I am damaged. I can’t have a one-on-one relationship. I know guys always want something, I see it every day.”
A truck slowly passed, windows half rolled down. Shay gave them a withering look. “Staring going to cost you.”
“People look at us as dirty or nasty or ugly. Not everything is how it seems. We’re not bad people. I’m just playing the cards that I’m dealt.”‘
‘I arrived at 9:00 am with $10 dollars in my pocket and a sheet of phone numbers. Sonya was nowhere, her corner space a bundle of dirty blankets, broken needles, and a Bible. The kitten was gone, presumably given to a friend to watch.
I walked the stretch of the Bruckner, where she begs.
At 10:00 am I found her leaning against a pole. She smiled, “I just need to get straight before I go.”
Nobody had drugs this early; she had to call for a delivery that came an hour later.
Most of her veins dry, she struggled to hit her foot. I waited in the car, calling.
Her first choice was full. Her second choice full. Her third choice full.
I called a place nearby, “What is her Medicaid ID.” I repeated the numbers. “What is her drug of choice and when was the last time she used.” “Her drug is heroin and the last time is five minutes from now.”
They had a bed.
She slept in the van as I drove, overpowered by a bar of Xanax she neglected to tell me about.
She slept in the detox intake room, filled with others desperate to be clean.
Two college kids were giving a lecture on healthy eating, passing out flyers. They left one on Sonya’s lap.
An hour later she was turned down. Her Medicaid had expired.
I dropped her off. She collapsed into the blankets, the Bible under her head.’
Chris’s Guardian article about Sonya’s story ‘Ted Cruz and Obamacare critics clearly don’t get it’ can be read here.
‘“When my father dies I will go to his funeral, only to make sure he is really dead.” – Michael.
Michael, or Shelley, ran away from home at 15. His father, a trucker in the Bronx, was “strung out on drugs, and abusive.” Michael was molested when young. When he told his parents “they blamed me. ‘If you weren’t gay it wouldn’t have happened.’” He has been living in Hunts Point since.
“When I started the drugs and then working the streets, I just wanted attention. I didn’t get it where I should have, at home, but the johns gave it to me.”
He and others were evicted from a house where they were squatting. Now he lives in an enclosure beneath the expressway, accessible only by an eight-yard crawl space. Used by addicts to shoot up, it was littered with needles and other garbage. He spent a day cleaning it, adding a few small items: flowers, a plastic tub to bathe in, and some small decorations.
“I been here in Hunts Point for over twenty years. These kids, they have no chance. None. They grow up here and this is all they see: addicts and prostitutes. Drugs are everywhere. It’s the culture of Hunts Point. This place is hell.”’
‘Pepsi, 43, grew up in Hunts Point. She started dealing drugs and smoking weed at 12, a shy girl attracted by what the older girls where doing. Heroin and crack followed, picked up in her later teens. She has been walking the streets for almost twenty years. “I have almost died out here twice. One john started choking me, another threw me out of the moving car like a bag of shit. Us girls try to watch out for each other, if I am your friend I’m not gonna let anyone do anything to you.”
“I beat myself up all the time, I know that I am better than this, but I keep making bad choices. I been in jail over 40 times, my rap sheet is a book. Being out here, the drugs, you lose your dignity and who you are. “
When I asked her how she wanted to be described, she said “Spontaneous.” When I asked what her dream was, she thought for a long time, then started to cry. “I want to be with my kids.”‘
‘Bernice, 36, had tears in her eyes as she described duck-taping her torso after a man had sliced a vertical cut down her back on the street. “I wrapped cotton pads around and went back to work. I do shit on my own.” Her attacker, a local john, stabbed eight girls working the streets in Hunts Point before the police caught him.
From Maine, Bernice was kidnapped and brought to the area by a john. However hard it’s been, she’s glad she’s away from her family. “What? Am I supposed to suddenly have a relationship with my family, sit down, and pretend one of my mother’s boyfriends didn’t force himself on me when I was young?” She’s done crack and heroin since she was 19, though she sticks to crack now.
Bernice has had 42 charges of prostitution and four open cases. “I think the police throw us in jail when they see us looking too bad. They kinda look out for us.” She says she’s done everything she can to be clean. “How can 28 days and a few pats on the shoulder fix what I have been through? How?”
She says the best thing she’s done is give her two children up for adoption, wanting anything but a life on the street for them. Now, though, she constantly struggles to recognize and remember what she’s living for. “I am out here trying to kill myself. I want to get a gun and do it faster, but I am too scared to blow my head off.”
When I asked her to describe herself in one sentence, she said “I am a wounded person.”‘
‘Déjà’s mother was a crack addict and prostitute. At five Déjà started raising the other five children in the house. All shared a mother and none shared a father.
At nine her mother was taken away and the children split up. Déjà ran away from her foster family at twelve and came out as a woman. “I picked up all sorts of habits. I started doing things I don’t do, including smoking crack like my momma did.”
She has been in Hunts Point only a week, “I relapsed so here I am.”
She lives with Michael in an empty lot, working the track at night. “The only way I can prostitute is to drink and to do cocaine. How can you pretend to love and have sex otherwise? Addiction makes you do things you don’t want to do.”
She sat in the cold spray of the hydrant, cooling off.
“I want the white picket fence, the Tupperware parties, the husband and kids.”
“Dream? That’s a fairy tale not a dream. Out here you can’t have dreams.”’
‘The police, narcotics, and vice all swarmed Hunts Point two weeks ago in a crackdown that netted low-level possession, dealing, and prostitution charges. It also ensnared Takeesha who is now serving a two-month sentence in Rikers.
This is common. Presently ten of my Bronx subjects sit in Rikers or upstate New York prisons on non-violent drug charges.
When I left Hunts Point after Takeesha’s arrest I stopped by a bar close to my home in Brooklyn to write and drink a few beers.
I often do this to collect my thoughts. I try to choose bars without a large drug scene, without lines to use the bathrooms, without annoying coked-out customers. That is hard to do since cocaine, pills, and other drugs are a reality of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bar scene.
The drugs are done by white affluent customers.
I have never seen any arrests. I have never seen anyone worried about being arrested.
The stark difference I see between how drugs are treated in the Bronx and brownstone Brooklyn is jarring but not surprising. The statistics show exactly the same thing.
The war on drugs is a war on the poor.
It is as simple as that.’
Chris’s Op-Ed in the Guardian ‘The Wealthy make mistakes, the Poor go to jail’ can be read here.
For anyone who would like to help the community in Hunts Point, please consider donating to Hunts Point Alliance for Children.
For people supporting Basic Income in Europe, there is a petition closing on 14 January 2014 that requires one million votes of supports for the European Commission to examine this initiative and arrange for a public hearing in the European Parliament. The petition can be signed here.