Editor’s Note: In today’s entry, De Sales Service Works director Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, discusses the rampant drug problems in Camden. Despite the obvious problems and the temptation to despair, he highlights the possibility of hope for people and what some people are doing to help people who suffer from addiction. Frequently, people addicted to drugs can be moved to the margins of society. However, as Christians, we are challenged to follow Jesus who ministered to those who lived on society’s margins.
One of the most disturbing things we have experienced living here is the evidence of drug abuse. Illegal, dangerous drugs are all around us here.
We see it in the drug trade carried on “hidden in clear sight” everywhere, at intersections and in the middle of blocks. In fact, for our first year here, until about a month ago, a house directly across the street from the front door of our grade school was a busy drug house. Teenage boys and young men manned the front porch and sidewalk as buyers visited in car or on foot beginning late morning and continuing late into the night. All this occurred with mother and extended family-sisters, cousins, babies-coming and going as well.
We see it in people we meet who are clearly high: either hyper-energetic or just out of it. We see it in people young and old who are wasted away physically: skinny with vacant, distracted eyes. We feel it in conversations that have no energy of commitment: no one is home. This is most shocking and depressing when we see people in their teens or early twenties who clearly just arrived here from their middle class lives. Seeing the look of people caught in this subculture is depressing in everyone, but seeing young people who are not yet wasted away, whose skin in not yet scribbled on with tattoos that are on everyone on the street, often just makes me angry. They have to have other options, I think to myself.
The third evidence of drug use is discarded syringes that can be seen all over in the neighborhood. Every alley or shadowy corner seems to be the place to shoot up. An alley near our house, between us and our grade school, is where we see needles the most. This alley is a disaster, with junk everywhere. For a couple months in the summer the alley even featured chairs, a discarded cooler, and two plastic milk crates with a canopy rigged above it set up for shooting up.
We have to ask how anyone gets to the point in their lives where they are willing to sit in a place like that, for any purpose. And who likes needles, even in a safe and sanitary medical environment? I suppose people get so caught in addiction that they end up here. I suppose some see so few options for themselves that the escape that alcohol and drugs offer seems like a viable option, one that is within reach.
This chilly morning I looked out my office window to the night shelter of a man we see here every day. Sometimes he sleeps with friends or in abandoned buildings, but when he sleeps in our parking lot, he gathers cardboard to construct a box for himself to sleep. He chooses a somewhat sheltered spot against the wall of a tall brick building. He never seems high; he says he has been free of drugs for years. Yet looking at his circumstances, I think that the temptation to simply numb his awareness must haunt him as an appealing option against the cold, loneliness and lack of direction.
I met another man a couple weeks ago here to get a sandwich. He is a young guy, clean-cut, not wasted away, without tattoos. We talked, and he told me he is a vet. He served in Iraq. He is in the reserves (if I got the terminology correct) and is waiting to be deployed overseas again. He can’t be more than 24. His family situation is scattered and chaotic, so he is on his own, living in Camden’s “tent city.” He said he spent much of his downtime during his deployment high, with earphones plugged into loud music just to get through the constant stress of war. So he is here trying to keep things together until his unit re-gathers for training for a deployment in Afghanistan in the spring. I suggested he use the resources of the Veterans’ Administration to treat his drug dependence and the effects of combat. He feels that doing that would jeopardize his career. The only option he sees is holding out until training begins.
That weekend members of the student government of DeSales University were here for a service retreat, and they took on the alley. Graduates of Holy Name grade school joined them, and together they cleared away old tires, mattresses, carpet, weeds: junk and more junk. They filled a construction dumpster with the debris. The pavement still looks like it belongs in a developing country, but clearing the alley has made a huge difference.
These students are aware of a wide horizon of options for their lives. Thank God that service and concern for those with constricted options is on that horizon; our community benefits from that generous vision.