As I’ve made clear in recent pieces on the addiction epidemic and deinstitutionalization, I remain fiercely critical of the myopic, misguided progressive policies at play in the current homeless and addiction crisis in California. Still, meaningful faith won’t allow me to disregard the suffering right in front of me. I’m reminded of a quote from Dostoevsky in “Brothers Karamazov”:
Brothers, have no fear of men’s sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth.
It echoes a beautiful line from 2 Timothy 1:7:
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
It’s far too easy to pretend to know what may have led one down the treacherous path of addiction. The truth is, we often have no idea what siren songs of suffering and despair guide one to make such a terrible choice.
I’ll give just one anecdote to illustrate my point: One of my dearest friends over the last 20 years was addicted to heroin and alcohol some 10 years ago. What compelled him toward such addictions? His own father shot him up with heroin on a small, rural farm up north when my friend was a mere 15-year-old kid. So, again, we often just don’t know, and a measured kind of compassion becomes imperative, especially from a religious vantage point.
My Own Street View of the Crisis
I’ve spent a lot of time walking the wild streets of Los Angeles in my almost two decades here. In my many strolls, I’ve gotten to know some of the many homeless addicts that stumble through the neighborhoods around me. Here are a few of their stories in brief.
I first met Melinda more than a decade ago outside of a Rite Aid. She has a genuinely sweet disposition completely at odds with her circumstances. She’s almost candid in her defeat. She doesn’t try any of the typical hustles when she sees me. There is no pitiable glance or mention of money. She just asks how I’m doing and I do the same. She had once gotten clean enough from heroin addiction to land a job at an animal clinic. She looked great, rejuvenated. A few months later, she was living out of a car more strung-out than ever.
These days, she’s doused in haggard makeup stumbling through the streets with a noticeable limp. She now openly sells herself for a fix. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to witness. So it goes.
Raj used to panhandle outside of a local Trader Joe’s. I’d sometimes grab him a sandwich or a soda. He’s also Punjabi. He says he ended up on the streets after his wife introduced him to meth. Unfortunately, it’s always difficult to gauge the veracity of the stories an addict tells. These days he takes what he can get – heroin, meth, anything.
Like many other homeless addicts, Raj also subsistence deals – that is, he deals simply to maintain his habit. The other day he jokingly asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. I pretended I didn’t hear him and wished him well. I also know that the dealers higher up in the sinister food chain use addicts as dealers now because Prop 47 reduced felony possession to a misdemeanor. The dealers know they can spread their contraband into manageable portions among subsistence dealers with little fear of legal reprisal.
As if fate conspires in its own mercurial ways, Raj and Melinda are a kind of couple at the moment. I see them together all the time, pushing their lonely carts down the various boulevards. It’s inscrutable and tragic to witness.
Danny harbors all the broken mannerisms of a homeless addict. It’s as though Atlas stones have broken him down into some wasted state of subservience, his head permanently bent down in some derelict act of penance.
Danny used to live in a van a few blocks down from where I live. Like so many other heroin addicts, he thought he could manage his addiction. Recovering heroin addicts will tell you over and over again that the reason why heroin’s grip is so insidious is that it begins as a gentle breeze. The first few hits are manageable. The high simply softens the hard world a bit. One is convinced they only need it once or twice a month if at all. Almost always, within a year or less, they’re in the throes of full-blown addiction, using multiple times a day.
Danny always seems to be on the verge of tears whenever I talk to him. Today is no different. When I ask if he’s seen his 7-year-old son recently, he simply breaks down and weeps. I mention rehab for the umpteenth time. He finally looks up at me with a profound sense of dejection. It’s as though I’ve asked him to consider climbing to the moon.
Sometimes objectivity is only available at the bottom of the proverbial pit. Only then do we see the full view of our self-destruction and our suffering. It’s why my friends who attend AA insist that one often has to hit rock bottom before genuine change can occur. How much farther down Melinda, Raj and Danny must descend is beyond me. For many, there is no bottom. It’s impossible not to feel for them though, regardless of the terrible choices they’ve made. The only respite I can find is my firm belief that they remain in Gods hands, as do we all.
More from Sharif Khan: Addiction Fuels The Homelessness Crisis, Not Lack Of Housing Or Jobs