Photo: Zoe Meyers/The Desert Sun
Blake Pricer shows a sobering glimpse of the epidemic seen around the county, he’s only 26. When he woke up that morning, he was lucky. He had just commandeered a supply closet of the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs. He woke to the sound of pounding fists outside the door, the maids had wanted their rightful space back. Then Blake was off and out to find his body’s addiction.
Pricer needed Heroin. Which means he was looking for money. He became $13 richer when he started opening mailboxes and found money in a letter, then checks he would sell later. With that $13, he could easily find someone to sell him his need. Blake is only 26, thin and tattooed with shorts that hang past his knees. He rode to his stolen bike into downtown to the cooling center where homeless people like him could evade the heat, eat and take a shower. He parked his bike and strolled into a bathroom where he casually injected the heroin in his arm. It was barely 9 a.m.
“I’ve done it for so long,” he said, “it’s nothing for me to walk in there and walk out five minutes later with everything done, clean, shot.”
He started using heroin when he was just a teen, 17 years old. It began after using prescriptions given to him by a doctor after he hurt his back weightlifting in school. The Vicodin relieved the pain, and that’s when the abuse began. When it ran out, he started stealing them from his ill father. When those ran out, a friend told him heroin was cheap and an easily available alternative.
In the last ten years Pricer has seen short time in rehab and jail. After exhausting the help of his family in February, he became homeless. The Coachella Valley has a growing homeless population that in January of 2017 was an estimated 459 people across nine cities in the Valley. Palm Springs reported nearly 1/3 of that number.
Addiction and drug abuse can be one of the many precursors that lead to a person becoming homeless, or it can be caused as person tries to cope with the additional stress of not having a home. The drug addiction data isn’t concrete, but when speaking to the homeless community themselves, that say heroin is becoming more common.
“Meth and heroin have become the drugs available and the drugs that actually remove a lot of their suffering,” said Arlene Rosenthal, president of Well in the Desert, a charity aiding the homeless in Palm Springs.
Even with the Heroin use growing, Meth is still the most common drug found on the streets say local law enforcement. Some use both, as Pricer did throughout the day while he allowed a reporter from The Desert Sun to follow him.
Drug addiction is not only found in the homeless, as it’s evident in the national crisis we hear the president now declaring a national public health emergency. The number of opioid related overdose deaths has quadrupled in the United States since 1999, and there are now 91 overdose deaths a day across the country. More than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, most involving opioids.
“For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses now are the leading cause of death,” Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in June.
When President Trump declared in October the opioid crisis a national public health emergency, he did so with no additional funding to combat the epidemic. The declaration on its own has made a limited impact. On November 1st, his opioid commission released more than 50 recommendations for the president and congress to enforce.
In Riverside county, A large area that includes Palm Springs and more than 2.3 Million people in Southern California, overdose deaths involving heroin has risen over the past decade. Much of the national epidemic has been concentrated on the Northeast and Midwest, California counted 1,966 opioid overdose deaths in 2015. That number was few enough to have one of the lowest opioid death rates in the country according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Justin Bramblett, a meth user who’s been homeless in Palm Springs for the past 10 years, says a trick to revive an overdose is to put ice down their pants. He says that on hot days McDonald’s will sometimes give out free ice that can be used to stay cool or stay alive.
“Pretty much everybody does drugs to get through the day,” said Bramblett, 48, one morning after spending the night sleeping along the river wash south of downtown. “It takes away the pain.” He agrees with others who said more of the homeless are using heroin, and like others he said younger people seem more inclined to use it. Heroin is often just called “black”; meth is “white.”
Finding black can be hard at first if you don’t know who to ask, Bramblett said. “But once you get the who, where and what, then you can find it.”
Pricer finished shooting heroin in the bathroom again and walked to a public park a block from the cooling center. It was already hot, so he removed his shirt and sat on a bench. He started closing his eyes and slowly falling forward, as if he were falling asleep, right in the middle of speaking. He would drop his cigarette, or someone would speak, and he would wake up again, just for a moment. Over and over again.
Just a month earlier, Pricer and his girlfriend were talking about trying rehab. She had committed and checked into a center in San Clemente. He made excuses and didn’t follow through, and was met with embarrassment when they spoke.
“My girlfriend looks at me in the eyes now and sees bullshit,” he said.
Jake Stewart grew up in the area and has been using for the past 10 years, starting when he was 24. He said it began with pills, but when he and his wife became homeless when they moved back into Palm Springs.
He had approached Blake Pricer and asked if he had any heroin, and Pricer handed over a black eyeglasses case. Stewart then walked in front of the grassy area of an apartment building, opened the eyeglasses case and loaded his orange capped syringe. He was shaded by large trees that blocked the view from passing cars, but was still in plain view of by passers from the sidewalk. It was 10 a.m. and while he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink, he’d gotten his first hit of heroin of the day, Stewart points out.
Heroin users treat withdrawal like a sickness. Saying you’re sick means you’re overdue for a hit. “I need to get well” is one way to casually ask if someone has any heroin.
“It’s kind of like having the flu,” Stewart said about the withdrawal, “but you would rob somebody to get rid of it.”
Palm Springs officer Max Reynoso went out like he does most mornings at the start of his shift to patrol the downtown area popular for the homeless to reside. He found 5 people in the shaded breezeway of an office building. He suspected the people he found where in possession of drugs, but didn’t ask about it or to search them. He just told them to stay out of trouble.
He estimates that about half of the homeless people he encounters use drugs, with meth being the most common. He will respond to an occasional heroin overdose but much of the calls are about homeless people being nuisances. Unless someone is causing a serious problem or are openly using drugs, arrests aren’t made. Under the current state law, drug offenders rarely stay in jail long anyways.
“I can arrest them today, and if I was on an 18-hour shift, I’d probably see them on the street by the end of my shift or the next day,” he said.
Leaders in Palm Springs have struggled to get a handle on the homelessness crisis, especially since the closing of the only nearby shelter in June. The cooling center operated by Well In Desert offers a place for people to come during the day, plus some food and shower facilities, but it does not house people overnight.
Ginny Foat, a long-time member of the Palm Springs City Council who’s been involved in homelessness issues, said the local homeless response has focused on helping people with direct and short-term assistance, people who are often referred to as “situationally homeless.”
The chronically homeless, those of whom are facing addiction or other mental health issues, pose a different problem often requiring more substantial help that the city alone can’t provide, she said.
Foat, who will be leaving office at the end of the year, said that in a region with many drug rehabilitation centers, there is still a serious lack of available treatment options for someone who is homeless or can’t afford treatment for another reason.
For Palm Springs to take on its drug problem, she said, the city will have to look beyond the homeless.
After avoiding local police, Pricer spent the next several hours at an apartment getting high and hanging out with friends who rent places in a former hotel, now offering rundown apartments near the trendy district in Palm Springs.
He then prepared a ‘goofball’, a mix of heroin and meth and injected it. This was three hours from his last dose. An hour later he was at another apartment in Sunset Palms, using more of his concoction again.
He walked past the pools and the boarded-up windows on some rooms to a back alley with a concrete wall that had been heightened, he said, to keep transients from hopping between lots.
“Everything here is just a band-aid, a band-aid, a band-aid,” Pricer said. “It reminds me of heroin because you do heroin and it’s a band-aid for 20 or 30 minutes.”
Anyone from any background could be prescribed an opioid like Pricer was, and then from mental stress or genetic predisposition, fall into an addiction, said Heather Gaedt, a clinical psychologist in Palm Desert, who works with people dealing with addiction.
“Usually it’s the stereotype that it’s the person on the street,” she said. “It’s not that scenario at all for most people. It’s seen everywhere.”
Gaedt said the increase in heroin addiction she’s seen appears mostly in middle- and upper-class families. A major factor in the increase, she said, is opioid pills becoming harder to obtain on the street.
Entering a drug rehab center can have lasting benefits even if the person ends up using drugs again, she said, but rehab is often most effective when a person has already tried another program, such as outpatient treatment, and not been successful.
“I haven’t really met an addict who’s active in their disease who says, ‘I want to go to rehab,’” Gaedt said.
Pricer said of his own experiences with rehab, it didn’t work because he never learned how to stop a relapse when the treatment was over. Looking back, he said, his time in rehab was like a vacation.
“I know that what I’m doing is wrong and what I’m doing is constantly hurting myself and consistently hurting my family,” he said. “But I can ironically use all of my intelligence that I’m born with and blessed with to achieve what it takes to get high, but I can’t use that intelligence to cease that disgusting behavior.”
Blake told his friends at the Sunset Palms Apartments about the checks he had found while searching mailboxes, he had hit a “jackpot”. He had found a personal check for $265 and 4 blank business checks, he knew someone who would know how to get money with those. After selling the checks for half their value, Pricer said he would use
$70 to get a hotel room for the night, $100 worth of heroin and send the remainder to his girlfriend in rehab.