Three afternoons a week, James Y., an impeccably dressed businessman from Staten Island, slowly descends the stairs into the dimly-lit basement of Our Lady Star of the Sea and prepares himself to join a group of community members struggling with addiction to drugs, alcohol, or even both.
“There’s probably going to be somebody counting days or not even,” he said. “They may even be in the meeting high right now. ”
A recovering addict himself, James facilitates a Pills Anonymous group to address the growing opiate crisis in Staten Island. He requested to use only his first name, as is typical in PA meetings.
He hopes to provide a space where those recovering from addiction in Staten Island can support each other and share their struggles without facing the stigma they fear in public, but he and other community resources acknowledge that it isn’t always easy.
“People are negative and say you’re a junkie, you’re an addict,” Susan Hudec, a counselor at Christopher’s Reasons, an opiate resource center on Staten Island, said. “People use these negative words. [For] the disease of addiction, no one has compassion.”
As in many communities, the stigma that addicts face from their community can sharply affect the way they go about receiving treatment, if at all.
“I think just walking in the door of a place is hard for them,” Hudec said. “Cause they’re judged everywhere they go. They want to know that they are coming to a place where they’re not going to be judged.”
Oftentimes, rather than dealing with being perceived as uncontrollable “junkies”, addicts seek treatment outside of their own neighborhoods to avoid running into their neighbor or acquaintances.
“You don’t want to go down the block to where you’re going to see your dentist or your mom’s friend at your treatment facility,” Jazmin Rivera, the Program Director for Tackling Youth Substance Abuse, said.
That’s if there even are local treatment facilities easily accessible. A lot of times, addicts are not so lucky.
In a Columbia University study published earlier this year, several suburban neighborhoods in Staten Island were found to have significant gaps in services. Community partners argue that it’s not due to a lack of effort on their part, but rather the negative perception of addicts.
“Some of our partner programs have tried to open new in-patient facilities and they can’t get the permits because people don’t want that in their area,” Rivera said. “Residents do not want in-patient treatment in their neighborhood.”
Oftentimes, ill-informed locals confuse less intensive outpatient clinics and resource centers with rigorous in-patient facilities. In one instance, Rivera’s office received worried phone calls about a Christian sponsored resource center that had just opened its doors for business.
“I had multiple people call me from community boards and say ‘Is there a new in-patient place opening in New Dorp?’“ she said. “People were up in arms and they didn’t even know what it was.”
Still, even when opioid addicts successfully seek help from local clinics, they occasionally face humiliation from the employees that staff them.
“The stigma, unfortunately, is in the places that serve who we serve.” Donna Mae DePola, founder of the Resource Training and Counseling Center, said. “The people that work at these places sometimes are not nice to people. They judge them too.”
Christopher’s Reason, a 24-hour resource center founded by Anne Marie Perotto after losing her son to a heroin overdose, hopes to offer a sanctuary from both clinical and community stigmas. In addition to offering group therapy sessions for individuals and families, the center encourages addicts to socialize and even take refuge as they come down from a high and slip into painful withdrawal symptoms.
“It’s a place where there’s a lot of love and a lot of caring, ” Hudec said. “Sort of like Planet Fitness: it’s a no judgment zone.”
Even with centers like Christopher’s Reasons and therapy groups like Pills Anonymous, many organizations believe that one of the biggest obstacles to fixing Staten Island’s opioid crisis lies in improving public perception of addicts.
“I think we’ve made some headway, but you know the stigma is always going to be there,” DePola said. “People don’t get it.”