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Monday, February 12, 2002

The Loneliness of the Street

Observations of an Employed Homeless Heroin Addict Living in San Francisco

by David H.

Iíve met a lot of other homeless people while living on the streets. And out of all those, there was only one person whom I could truly call my friend.

Paul is dead now. He passed on sometime in November, after his liver grew so inflamed that it rubbed against his rib cage and was cut open. They were unable to stop his bleeding because of extensive damage caused by alcohol. He slowly bled to death at a hospital in Marin County.

Paul and I were best friends, always looking out for each other. Paul had gotten his life together and had quit drinking. He spent about four months in SF County Jail two years ago, which gave him the time and opportunity to ďdry out.Ē

Paul and I lived together on the streets before that, both of us heroin addicts who panhandled every day so we could both ďget well.Ē (I wasnít working at the time.) It didnít make one bit of difference who came up with the money, we both ďgot wellĒ together, whether he paid for it or I did.

We saved half of any food given to either of us so the other could also eat. We slept near each other so as to watch each otherís back at night.

Paul was an alcoholic. He had to have those beers, which always turned him into a falling-down drunk. I myself never developed a taste for alcohol, but I allowed Paul his vice and he allowed me mine.

At the time, I was smoking crack cocaine rock. I would always put away enough money to buy myself a rock at the end of our day.

Sometimes Paul smoked with me (even though it was small, I still shared with Paul. Iíd never do that with anyone else.) However, most of the time he just sat there and drank a beer or two while I smoked. We went up on a hill to a public park to relax and enjoy our vices at the end of our day. This was after sundown, when it was too dark outside to panhandle from one of the traffic islands along Van Ness Avenue.

When Paul was released from jail, he immediately went into a drug rehab program and worked hard at getting his life back together. He was so successful that he ended up with a good-paying job and his own efficiency apartment south of Market. We still stayed friends and didnít lose touch with each other. Paul would lend me money if I needed it to score drugs, even though he was clean and straight. Every time I saw him, he had a bag full of clothes and soft-covered books for me. (Iím an avid reader, always having a book Iím reading with me.)

I had been leaving messages on Paulís answering machine, trying to plan when we could spend some time together talking over a cup of coffee. We usually met at the doughnut shop on Van Ness and Geary when I got back into the city after work.

I was surprised when he didnít return my calls, or even answer his phone when I called him late at night at his home. At the time, I wasnít worried because I knew Paul attended a lot of NA and AA meetings, often serving as the guest speaker himself.

It was raining, and I was huddled in the doorway of St. Brigidís Church when a pick-up truck pulled up to the corner and someone shouted my name. It was an old friend whom I used to work with years ago in the telemarketing business. He had met Paul at the rehab and told me how Paul had unexpectedly died. Paul was doing so well. He had turned his life totally around and was truly enjoying being alive.

I was shell-shocked. My friend let me sleep on his floor that night and also pitched to me about how he had turned his life around, urging me to go into a program and get help. I told him about my problem getting a California ID card, which prevented me from getting into a methadone detox program. H suggested that I purchase a stockpile of prescription drugs on the street and use those to help me ďkick my habit.Ē

Let me try to put into words what it is like to detox off heroin. Your body becomes dependent on the drug. Without it, you begin to get very physically sick. Every muscle in your body aches and cramps up so much that even a hot bath provides only temporary minor relief. (And of course, for people on the streets, a hot bath is out of the question.) You break out in a horrible case of the cold sweats, making you feel clammy all over. Itís impossible to get comfortable. With a blanket, youíre too hot, and without it youíre too cold.

Your whole body feels weak from exhaustion. You want to lie down and rest, but you are unable to because of the intense pain surging through every muscle. You become extremely nauseated and are unable to keep down even a little bit of water. Your appetite is nonexistent. Even the thought of food makes you sick. Your bowels become extremely loose, causing you to constantly run to the toilet, amazed because you know there is nothing in you because of your inability to eat.

And you might as well forget about sleeping for the next few weeks. Itís totally impossible to sleep. All you will do is toss and turn all night long, trying to get comfortable, which is also impossible because your entire body is racked with pain. Aspirin couldnít even begin to help the headache you have, much less provide comfort to your body.

It is a physical, emotional, psychological drain on your entire system, which I wouldnít wish on even my worst enemies. The pain is steady and unrelenting for the first five days and then ever so slowly your body starts to heal itself, realizing that it is not going to receive any more heroin.

All this went through my mind as my friend and I talked about detox programs, as we grieved for Paul.

Even though Paul and I werenít living together any more, he was still my one and only good friend whom I could trust. And there you have the key word: trust. Oh, I have friends I know from the streetÖ I have friends I know from workÖ but there isnít anyone I can truly trust with my life. Nobody at work offers me a place to spend the night, even in a garage, when itís pouring down rain. Nobody on the street offers me anything at all.

I smoke cigarettes and usually Iím not without a pack, but Iíve learned from the past to lie and say I donít have any when Iím asked (which is way, way too often on the street). I even have a co-worker who makes more money that I do ask me to sell him cigarettes (at a quarter apiece).

I have so little that everything I own in the world fits in my small backpack I carry, and there is plenty of room to spare in there. So I am forced to alienate myself to protect what little I do have and not be used by others.

The loneliness is the worst. My heart literally aches for a good friend, someone I could tell anything without being judged, someone to hang out with, work with, party with, and sleep with. I read so much because reading takes me away and helps me momentarily forget that Iím all alone. But when all is said and done and the day is over and I lie down somewhere by myself, I still cry myself to sleep, wishing I had a friend, someone to talk to and say good-night to. Someone who wouldnít use me because I have money that I earn every day at work, someone who would be waiting for me to get off the bus at the end of the day and would have a good-night shot of dope waiting for me.

The thought of female companionship doesnít even cross my mind, knowing that is a total impossibility. I know a lot of other homeless guys who will go out and buy a bunch of crack rock, then pick up a hooker and offer to smoke her out if she will go party with them. Besides the fact that I quit smoking rock and havenít touched one in seven months, Iím not the type of guy who can turn to a prostitute for companionship, which is of course not only temporary but also totally fabricated. She doesnít like you, no matter what she says. The only thing she likes and wants is that next hit of the crack pipe and will do and say anything to get it form you.

Crack cocaine has got to be without a doubt the very worst drug to ever hit the streets. Heroin addicts would never do half the things crack heads do to get their next hit. People have been hurt (and killed) over $5.00 which a crackhead thinks he has got to have. He isnít physically addicted like the heroin addict, but he is psychologically addicted, so deeply that he becomes dangerous to others and himself.

Iím glad that I was working and had money to buy crack when I did smoke it, and Iím even gladder that God helped remove that desire from my life. Now, not only do I not crave it at all, but I also loathe it and will get away from it or anyone having anything to do with it (which is another reason I donít have any homeless friends Ė a good percentage of them smoke crack, either casually or heavily.)

I miss Paul a lot and think of him often. Even when we went our separate ways, we still maintained the close friendship that was so special to both of us. Now with no one to trust (there is that word trust again), I feel so alone and lonely that it literally hurts.

Iíve been married twice and was with my last girlfriend for 2ĺ years, so I became used to being with someone. Itís been sort of conditioned into me since my first marriage, which lasted just one week short of five years.

But I was even lonely as a child. To this day, I can vividly recall sitting up in my room and staring out the window alone, wishing I had a friend to play with.

I do have a friend who is also homeless, who panhandles during the day to pay for his habits. We used to hang out together and we slept together and we fixed together. I still consider him my friend, even though we no longer hang out together.

Why donít we? What happened?

Iíll tell you. He took advantage of my friendship and I felt extremely used. He totally lost my trust (yup, thereís that trust word again).

And what caused this to happen, you ask?

His rock cocaine habit became more important than our friendship. I paid for both our habits, morning and night for a number of months, while his money went to his crack habit.

Now hereís where it gets interesting. He swears that he wasnít making enough money to buy any rock, much less help out by chipping in for dope. So I ended up paying for it and he still got half Ė probably more than half, since he never would cook it and divide it with me around. Well, I just up and left one night without looking back. I knew I was being used, but I let him use me. That was my fault and no one is to blame except myself. My reason for allowing myself to be used like that is because I needed companionship, which I paid for deeply out of my own pockets.

Thatís how lonely I was. I was willing to overlook what was being done to me so I would have a friend. Maybe not a friend I could trust (yup, again) , but at least someone to hang out with. Was it worth it? I honestly donít know. On the one hand, I donít like to be alone. On the other hand, I donít want people to think that they can easily take advantage of me by aiming for the weak spot in my heart. I end up pushing myself into a self-imposed exile to avoid being forced into one of those negative situations.

I believe that most homeless find it hard to trust anyone. We are so used to getting ripped off, dumped on, taken advantage of, and just plain outright used, that we find it hard to put our trust in anyone.

Thereís an old saying, ďMoney canít buy happiness.Ē It can, however, let you go out to clubs and bars to meet people, something a homeless person canít do because of the cost involved. Being homeless leaves you with hardly any options to meet someone in a social environment. And the people you do meet are generally in the same circumstances as you are, homeless, without any real opportunities to turn their life around and get off the streets and into their own place, with a job that allows them to pay bills and make ends meet.

Everyone Ė no matter who they are, how rich or how poor Ė knows the pain of loneliness. However, when you are among the population of the homeless, you have even less chance of meeting someone to become close to because of the great lack of trust among the homeless. As a homeless person, not only do you tent to trust others less; others also trust you less, making it even more difficult to connect with someone on any level. Homeless people need friends to reach out to them, people they feel they can trust. The beginning of a good solid friendship could help build a strong foundation on which to rebuild a life back.

Reach out, please, to a homeless person today. You could make a significant difference. Remember, we are all the same inside. We all need someone to talk to.