On a Thursday afternoon in early February, Louie Jones strolls through the courtyard of the Gowanus Houses, a public housing project in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. As he moves, Jones—40 years old, gaunt and relentlessly outgoing—sizes up each passerby. Jones is a recruiter of sorts, and every week at this time he is out pounding the pavement, in part, to find new enlistees. He’s not scouting for the military or for a church, but rather for his fledging organization, called VOCAL NY, User’s Union—the only group in New York solely dedicated to organizing the city’s legions of drug addicts. Jones is looking for a few good users.
At around 2:30 p.m., Jones spots a man in a puffy jacket, leaning against a fence.
“Condoms,” Jones calls out. “Free condoms?”
The man declines. “Still working on the last batch, y’all gave me.”
Jones keeps walking. At the center of the courtyard, a team of city workers is picking up trash. Jones takes a long look at the cop car idling nearby. “It’s going to be a slow day,” says Jones. “Slow, slow, slow.”
Thanks to the police presence the dealers are scarce, and so too are the users. The regular hotspots—the corner outside the bodega, a service ramp disappearing into one of the tall brick towers—are empty.
As he continues his walk, Jones explains the philosophy behind the user’s union. The notion isn’t new; it and has been employed to great effect in cities like Amsterdam and Vancouver, Jones says. The essential idea is to get chronic drug users to take responsibility for their health, not in some ideal version of the future when they’ve kicked their habit, but in the present imperfect moment while they continue to use drugs. The union, says Jones, is an effective way of bringing addicts together and encouraging them to begin helping each other “peer to peer.”
Jones has been a heroin addict for several decades, and argues that the current state of drug treatment in New York City is too much of a binary process. Some users remain in recovery and have access to many avenues for self-improvement from therapy to health care to volunteer opportunities; others still use, and have access to nothing. “We’re interested in the middle path,” says Jones. “No abstinence required.”
VOCAL’s current 20 to 30 dues-paying members (Jones isn’t sure about the exact number) meet regularly at the headquarters of the New York City AIDS Housing Network on Fourth Avenue in south Brooklyn. There, VOCAL members can attend support groups, sign up for volunteer activities, help plan demonstrations aimed at improving how the city caters services to them, and strategize on how to combat what Jones calls “addict-o-phobia”—that is, society’s stigmatization of addiction, which Jones believes often scares users into lying about their condition.
“You think of a group of users and you think of chaos,” says Jones. “It’s not chaos. It’s about the concept of harm reduction. I practice. We all practice. It’s what binds us together.”
That said, Jones would be the first to admit that organizing drug addicts is a bit more complicated than unionizing, say, journalists. Would-be members regularly drop out because of health or legal problems. Others might disappear on a binge. There’s also the tricky issue of funding. How do you get charitable organizations or city administrators to hand over money to a group of individuals who admit to regularly snorting cocaine or injecting heroin? Jones is still working out the details. But for the time being, VOCAL is surviving by forming partnerships with other sympathetic nonprofits in the area, such as the Harm Reduction Coalition and the Injection Drug Users Health Alliance.
In the meantime, Jones who is HIV- and Hepatitis C-positive, is out on the streets doing what he can to help reduce transmission of the viruses among his fellow Brooklyn addicts—one condom, one unsoiled syringe, and one pristine crack pipe at a time. On this Thursday afternoon, as he makes the rounds, Jones is accompanied by Michael Duncan, a physician assistant who works for various syringe-exchange programs throughout the city, and by a VOCAL volunteer.
At around 3 p.m., the team spots a potential peer member, a haggard, middle-aged woman, in neon-green gloves and a corduroy hat, who is standing out in the cold at the projects entrance, restlessly shifting from foot to foot. After a round of introductions, Duncan removes a crumpled brown paper bag from his overstuffed messenger’s backpack and hands it to the woman. Inside, there are alcohol swipes, a kit for disposing of used needles, packets of sterile water, a metal mixing cap, a cotton swab, and 10 clean syringes.
For the next few minutes, everyone stands around chatting, sharing gossip, advice, and war stories. Eventually, the physician’s assistant hands the woman a business card for a doctor who specializes in helping people overcome heroin addiction, using the prescription drug Suboxone. She listens as he explains the potential pros and cons of the treatment versus methadone. Finally, Jones reaches out and hands the woman a flyer. “VOCAL is the union of drug users and our allies,” reads the pamphlet. “We drug users and our allies need to be involved when drug-related policies are being discussed.”
Jones invites her to the next group meeting. Membership costs $20.