Evan Hall (he/they)
This article is part 2 of an ongoing series. Read part 1 here.
The rain trickled on top of the Chevrolet van, running since the early 2000s. Not knowing what to bring, I decided to keep the essentials with me - my phone and wallet. I was tempted to bring an umbrella, but the rain was a drizzle at best. The Detroit Recovery Project van fits people in the front and three people in the back. Our driver, Anthony, knew the roads of Detroit because of a mix of joyous moments with his mother growing up and darker times of dependence that took him beyond the main thoroughfares. My volunteer shift began promptly at 1 PM for me. For the others in the van that would pick me up, 1 PM was more of a loose deadline. This would continue as a theme for my time with them — function over punctuality.
Our first stop in the city was near a highway bypass. The bypass intersected I-75, a major freeway that cuts through the entire city, which has a racist historical past. Anthony parked the van in a deserted lot next to a vacant building, speaking to a common symbolic portrayal of Detroit’s landscape. I followed my colleague closer to the bypass. I could see old couches torn and weathered. One sofa that was probably bright red upon purchase had become an earthy mix of neutral tones with metallic accents, where the frame ripped through the seams. I entered a “homeless refuge.” The mosaic of used and forgotten items was paired with blue tarps, draped over the landscape. I heard the highway not because of the cars rumbling, but because of the sheer speed they passed us by. I was warned not to step in feces.
With my colleague leading the way, we found an outcove next to the bypass. The forested bypass opened to a green field, where grass filled the space between a truck and van. My colleague called out to the truck and van as if they would shake and rumble, becoming animated beings before our eyes. Instead, we both saw a tall lanky man sporting a dirt bike jacket with red lines exit the truck. I didn’t hand them any supplies, my colleague did. I was terrified. This experience had never entered my world view before.
Bree sat next to me in the van. I was on the end by the door, and she was in the middle. Bree admitted she had a rap sheet. She had a passion for entering a social work school, but because of limitations of people who had a “track-record”, public health might be a better option. Bree was coated with tattoos. They were black, white, and colorful. She spoke with an authority of lived experience I could not deny. Bree had past experiences with drug dependence; when she found enough support to wane off her dependence, she decided to discover a career that would help others like her.
Drug users. Substance abuse. Junkies. These terms embody the stigma that permeates a disgusting normative image forced upon people who use drugs. Prior to my experience with the Detroit Recovery Project, I supported those norms of stigma from what was relayed in mass media to me and from my own parents. I realized on my first day of volunteering that my narrow perceptions of people who use drugs were not only inaccurate and hurtful, but glossed over the complexity of intersectionality that rests at the root of addiction.
One such instance came when Bree and I took a walk in the opposite direction of the homeless refuge and toward the bridge over the highway. With the rain still drizzling overhead, I tried to gain warmth by tucking my hands in my pockets. Looking at me, you could tell I was “out of place.” A young white boy from suburbia walking in the hood of Detroit, cusping the outskirts of the main downtown of the city. I wore my grey weather resistant Allbird shoes with lightly washed denim jeans. My raincoat from Blue Lake Fine Arts Camps spoke of my privilege to express myself. I felt my head at an angle, not trying to look up and admit the many contradictions my situation presented.
Across the bridge lied an abandoned church. For the intent of protecting the residences of those who occupy many of the locations I discuss, I will utilize different names than are used in real life. The abandoned church is on Adelyn St. Its nickname is Adelyn Church. I did not know the history of the church. At one time, the walls could sing with the echoes of church choirs. Now, the rain erodes the wooden pillars, exposing its brick foundation. The main floor has since collapsed. I wonder if the religiosity of the church fell when its pews were no longer occupied or when the roof physically collapsed. Bree is ahead of me in pace, ushering me over to a makeshift medieval wood door that is slightly open. I peaked around the corner.
The first part inside Adelyn Church I noticed was a sign that hung above the basement entrance - “No Smoking”. Bree called it comical. At the entrance, Bree introduced me to one of DRP’s clients. She was rocking camo denim jeans with a green tank top and modified biker’s jacket, probably one fast fashion has popularized. We learn that she had just left rehab when things became unbearable--when withdrawal kicks in. She left us from the front of the church, and then came a chicken.
Bree had mentioned that this church turned trap house had many occupants. At first, we had only met one of the clients, until another, a man with fair white skin and the height of a basketball player waltzed in with a chicken. Where does one find chicken in Detroit? They say they found it limping along a side street nearby. Obviously, the chicken’s feet were once bound together. A sign of abuse and neglect from an owner. The man describes how he found maggots nesting in the wounds of the chicken. Carefully, they picked them out with their bare fingers. They eventually poured water over the wounds and treated them with penicillin. They are trying to give the chicken a home.
Bree ordered/told me to hand them the brown paper bags I filled with supplies, which were now damp from the rain. I did so, smiling and saying nothing. On the way back to the van over the bridge, Bree recounted to me the background of the woman who left rehab, noting how well her figure appeared and how nourished her face looked. There are defining physical features that often come with drug use. There was no anger from Bree about the client’s inability to complete rehab. I was confused. If someone starts something, shouldn’t they finish it? My answer to my question was all but answered when Bree told/informed me that the process of overcoming addiction is breaking a relentless feedback loop, years in the making. My novice approach as someone who had not experienced addiction undermined the reality of what we saw at Adelyn Church.
Our time in the vacant lot was not over yet; we received more demand when we handed out longs, shorts, gauze, tourniquet, crack holders, and condoms. We were greeting and talking with clients left and right. When we first arrived in the van, Bree told me that although the lot was empty, I should just wait to see people come out and visit the van. It was true. I learned more about Bree, not because I asked, but because Bree encapsulated her story in the message she delivered with clients. Bree talked with a couple slightly older than her in their early thirties. Relationships in substance use communities can often be a dangerous multiplier to an already difficult feedback loop. Oftentimes, individuals who inject drugs are impacted by trauma. When an intimate relationship is formed between people who inject and use drugs, the ability to decompress trauma between them is difficult to process. Thus, when the trauma is unprocess, it becomes exacerbated from the partner’s ability to process trauma, which is often minimal. This is no choice of their own, however. Systems of stigma and unresolved trauma, spanning generations, have brought individuals together who share similar lived experiences. Nevertheless, Bree admitted that it took 5 years being separated from her husband throughout the rehab process to become fully aware of how her own trauma impacted their relationship. I could see the eyes of the couples before us. There were no tears, yet I noticed their eyes bulge forward as if the weight of what Bree conveyed unraveled the crevices of their brain, expanding its entirety.
When we entered the van to find a new location, Bree joked with me about how she was now divorced from her husband. They still lived together in recognition of the importance of keeping their children out of their personal business. Speaking of business, they also ran a successful flooring company that made a new life possible for them. Bree later explained her divorce was based on her exploration of different “sexual elements.” Ariel, another DRP employee in the close-knit van, chuckled.
Ariel’s bright no-bullshit personality is what convinced me that my experience volunteering would be memorable. She joked with Anthony, using lingo I had never known. She talked to clients as their friends. Her life was about this job and the people she served. I only wish to have half the passion as she does in making a difference in the lives of people living out there in this terrifying world.
Next stop, Sussex Ave.
By the second time I volunteered with DRP, I had a nickname — “Sweetness.” One of the clients on Sussex Ave. gave it to me. Whether that spoke to my genuinely kind personality or the fact that you can clearly tell I am a flamboyant person, I will never know. The couple that lived on Sussex Ave. had a quaint house, where the windows were always drawn. She was pregnant, always wearing a crop top and short gym shorts. Bree and Ariel remarked at how ridiculous she looked--she would argue that her outfit was more practical than anything.
I listened carefully to one of her stories. Because she was pregnant, the likelihood of her being sent to prison was low. The risk of detaining a pregnant woman, specifically a high-risk pregnancy, was not a liability any police department wanted to hold, especially when the local prisons surrounding the Detroit area were facing multiple lawsuits against how they treated pregnant women. As she told this story, she rubbed her belly. She spoke highly of what she and her husband created. She would never raise that child; rather, adoption was the only likely route. Later, I would learn that the newborn found a home.
By the time our conversation had drawn to a close, her husband had yelled from the front porch that the steaks were cooked perfectly and that the corn would get cold if they didn’t start eating soon. We passed along two paper bags with supplies. Shorts. Longs. Crack pipes. Sterilized water.
I named the next location “Mac’n’Cheese & Beeswax,” a corner store joint with a colorful and checkered history in the city. Bree explained that this is where many drug dealers and sex workers “hang”. When we arrived, like many times before, the lot was empty. Then right on cue, as we opened the doors to the back of the van, people flocked to us. Ariel and Bree were particularly excited for me to meet Johnny. Johnny was a character straight from fictional TV. Emerging from a nearby forested vacant lot with the remnant of what looked to be a house, Johnny thrusted his wheelchair across the lot. Johnny had no legs. I wasn’t expecting an explanation, but I got one. One that Bree preemptively clarified probably wasn’t reality, but a good way Johnny made us laugh. He did. Towards the end of handing out supplies, a woman approaches the van. She asked, “Got any chips?” Ariel rushed to the front of the van and grabbed some name-brand cheetos and handed them to her. She said thank you and walked away.
The concept of community engagement goes far beyond outreach, and truly levers a position of trust with the community. The woman that approached for chips didn’t need supplies, but she knew that the Detroit Recovery Project could offer her support. She was not turned away because her need did not match the mission statement of DRP, rather she was incorporated into the broader community of support in Detroit.
Next stop, Pomegranate. (I had fun making up these names.)
When we arrived, there were decked out Cadillac SUVs. The wheels were taller than a small child, and reminded me of the tires macho wrestlers would flip to show their strength. Except these wheels had fancy LED light systems that created an ombre effect to the metal of the rims of the tires, which looked like they had never seen a rock or speck of dirt before. The cars were fast too. People in the motor city needed to keep up the reputation of the auto industry even in the quaint neighborhoods adjacent to the main thoroughfares.
One of the clients approached Bree. Bree smiled as she opened the van door and hugged the client, asking how she was doing. It was that simple. The trust established between clients and the workers in the van were genuine connections. Bree, Ariel, and Anthony knew these people in profession, but also on a personal level. The conversations with clients never forced out the necessity of prevention. They didn’t accuse clients of why they haven’t gone to rehab. Rather, Bree, Ariel, and Anthony sprinkled in facts and information into casual conversation about everyday life. Their discussions of drug use were building a collective experience and understanding, which lends itself to being more effective in greater critical awareness of changing one’s situation on their own terms.
While we were there, we noticed a pregnant cat. A pregnant cat that embodied everything I learned from the children’s story of “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.” However, in this instance, the cat had swallowed the entire vehicle and her belly was a textured museum of punctuations, most likely the kittens she would one day birth. The client that originally approached Bree mentioned that the folks living in the house were trying to rescue the cat, giving her a home with them. The cat scurried across the street.
The sun had long set when we loaded up the van for our final stop.
Pi Mile & I-Scifi.
My typical shift lasted well past my bedtime. It was close to 11 PM when the van kissed the curb. All of us got out. Anthony took a smoke out front. Ariel was situating materials in the back for when clients would arrive. Bree and I sat on the ledge of the road. The highway was a faint echo. The bright city lights of downtown were fading. The stoplight situated near us garnered enough light to make out the recognitions of other people.
He came with his friend and brother. His jeans were worn from work as a mechanic, and the black grease stains made it more evident. His skin wore him like leather. He sat down next to Bree, and to hear them better, I sat on the road. There weren’t any cars on the winding side street.
He began talking about the story of his mom, ending up in jail for some minor felony, where she would be doing 10 years of time. This would be year three. Even from a distance, he communicated that his mom still controlled him. She knew what he was up to because of the close knit social circles created by people who use drugs. He couldn’t escape the responsibility of looking after his brother, whom the law and local police knew very well.
He pointed to an abandoned house. He went on to explain how one of his friends was murdered in the house. Even worse was that the murder was framed to look like an overdose, an often blurry line that, without substantial evidence, can’t be distinguished in criminal investigation. He knew what had happened, but there were no groups or institutions, such as the police, he could go to. “What if they lock me up too?” he asked. We didn’t answer.
He had two or three kids of his own. The struggle to parent without stability, he expressed, was overbearing. He couldn't understand why it was hard to achieve a loving synergistic relationship, but he could point to the trauma that suffocated his capacity to learn. Bree, feeling the emotions of him like a tune on summer rain, talked about generational trauma. The trauma passed down from his mother, from seeing her overdose right in front of him at a young age to seeing her arrested. Then, he himself started to use at a young age and create a co-dependence on drugs that would stifle chances for stable jobs and housing. He didn’t know how his kids felt about it all, but they could be engrossed in different, but still penetrating trauma.
Bree told him about breaking the cycle.
I listened. The words feel like silly putty to the ground. I could hear each one clearly. Although I was familiarized with the terminology from previous research and classes, it was often made inaccessible through elitist postulancy and dissociation with its application in real world situations.
This was the real world. Supposedly, I was located in one of the most dangerous parts of the city. Nonetheless, the security of Bree’s voice combined with the vulnerability of his story made me feel like I was the easiest I had ever been.
Closing the van for a final time, I slammed the door shut.
The van was left in the lot adjacent to the building where my car was parked. I said thank you to Bree, Anthony, and Ariel. I hope they know how much it meant to me.
Whether the individuals we met that day were living with HIV or not, could not supersede the intertwined epidemics impacting Detroit. Our clients may have been given supplies by us, but it was their raw humanity that reminded us why we had to show the world who they were: humans.