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Housing and Homelessness

‘Fentanyl Was The Love Of My Life': A Woman's Fight Against Drug Addiction And Homelessness In LA

A spiral paper notebook with coffee stains that Jami uses to write her thoughts in while in drug treatment.
Jami keeps a notebook in which she writes down some thoughts to share in group sessions at drug treatment . "So why do you stay quiet? Because of shame. Because of guilt. Because (of) embarrassment," she wrote.
(Ethan Ward
/
LAist)
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Shame is the reason Jami Taylor said she never revealed that she was struggling with an addiction to fentanyl and methamphetamine while fleeing domestic violence in April.

Taylor said she is a licensed aesthetician originally from Pittsburgh, but has lived in L.A. for over a decade. She said that she worked since she was 15 years old and at one point, before falling into homelessness, was making $65,000 a year.

“I didn’t want the homeless community to be pigeonholed into addiction,” she said at a drug treatment facility in the San Fernando Valley. Taylor, who is using an alias to protect her privacy, said her drug use started over a decade ago while fleeing another domestic violence situation. Eager to numb her pain, she tried meth for the first time.

“I decided I didn’t want to feel anymore,” Taylor said. “When you are going through agonizing pain, you will reach for something to solve it.”

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Nobody wants to be a family member of a fentanyl addict. Nobody wants to be the fentanyl addict. I didn't want to be that.
— Jami Taylor, currently in drug treatment to overcome addiction

Taylor, who is white, considers herself lucky that she was able to get into drug treatment due to the help of a housed neighbor who eventually contacted her mother to share what happened. But that was not the case for over 700 people experiencing homelessness who overdosed during the pandemic year, according to the third annual report on mortality released by the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health.

The report compared deaths among unhoused people from April 1, 2020 - March 31, 2021 versus the same time period a year prior. Drug overdose remained the leading cause of death among unhoused people during both years.

The increasing numbers of unhoused people struggling with substance use underscore the need for exploring new ways to get people living on the streets to come indoors. People with lived experience are calling on officials to rethink their approach by providing a peek behind the curtain in the mind of an addict and what they believe are common sense solutions.

Struggling With Guilt And Prejudices

Taylor said fentanyl became the love of her life, despite the shame and guilt that left her a “shell of a person.” She hid her addiction from family and said societal shame also played a part in enforcing her addiction while living on the streets.

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“Nobody wants to be a family member of a fentanyl addict,” Taylor said. “Nobody wants to be the fentanyl addict. I didn't want to be that.”

Taylor described instances of people throwing rocks at her tent and blaring car horns at night in order to take their anger out on unhoused people simply because they’re addicts.

“When you get to this point your ego and pride tell you it’s not so bad, that you don’t have to live by rules,” Taylor said, describing the voices in her head as brain assassins. “You have to rationalize your state of being to be there or else you will kill yourself. Once you’re addicted it destroys reason.”

Elliot Smith, 39, is a former addict turned drug counselor. He said his addiction started with OxyContin and eventually led to heroin use because it was a cheaper alternative. It left him stuck in a spiral for 15 years. Smith, who is using an alias to protect his privacy and the clients he works with, has been sober for four years, but said he wished he knew earlier about options available to him.

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“I know a lot of people aren't aware that treatment is an option,” Smith said. “I know I wasn't aware. I was stuck in addiction for a long time and I just thought [treatment] was out of my price range. I thought, this is my life, this is what I'm destined for, and I didn't have an option.”

A picture inside a black frame hangs inside a room at the drug treatment facility where Jami is staying. It says addiction is a brain disease, but we do recover. There is a photo of a head with a brain in the middle.
A photo hangs inside the treatment facility where Jami is getting help. She said staff fights with insurance companies every day to provide coverage so their clients can overcome their addictions.
(Ethan Ward
/
LAist)

System Design Flaws

Veronica Lewis, director of the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS) said for the last two years her team has shared the rise in overdoses they see while engaging with people living on the streets. Lewis said they also have clients who struggle with addiction.

“Unfortunately is not news to us,” Lewis said. “There has not been a wide scale of intervention. I think that we're moving in that direction.”

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Lewis said her organization engages in harm reduction by providing Narcan, an overdose reversal medication, and clean needles for people who are actively using.

“We've given out over close to 10,000 clean needles and we've reversed almost 100 overdoses,” she said, adding that the engagement led to unhoused people being more open to the services. She also wants to see safe injection sites expanded throughout L.A. County.

But Lewis said there aren’t interim shelter options for people who are in the throes of addiction, causing those who want to abstain from drug use to leave shelter situations for life on the streets out of fear of relapsing.

I was stuck in addiction for a long time. I just thought [treatment] was out of my price range. I thought, this is my life, this is what I'm destined for, and I didn't have an option.
— Elliot Smith, former addict turned drug counselor

“The system is not necessarily designed or even funded in a way where we have clinicians and folks that are equipped to serve them well,” Lewis said.

Lewis said now that the city of L.A. has agreed to increase shelter capacity in each district over the next five years, they should also make sure there are enough beds for people struggling with addiction and that it shouldn’t be solely the county’s responsibility.

Compassion, Not Punishment

Taylor said the model for helping those struggling with addiction needs to shift to one that is centered in compassion instead of punishment. LAist asked Taylor what needs to happen to alleviate the drug addiction crisis affecting many unhoused people.

These were her suggestions:

  • Stop shaming people and treat addiction like the disease it is. Taylor said people struggling with addictions usually already have a predisposition.
  • Invest in universal healthcare. Taylor said it was a struggle finding a treatment center that would accept her insurance, referring to it as a “huge wall.”
  • Create a website that has one place unhoused people can go and see where beds are available for shelter or treatment, along with curbside pickup. Taylor said the website should be easy to navigate and color coordinated to show where beds are available, suggesting a red dot could mean no beds are available, yellow dots mean there are fewer than 10. She said when people are on drugs they aren’t thinking properly so the key is making it easy to comprehend.
  • Repurpose the function of L.A. County's 211 LA. Taylor said when she was fleeing domestic violence, the only thing representatives could do was provide her with numbers to call, calling it a “rabbit hole of numbers” that was “extremely frustrating.” She wants those agents to become advocates who are responsible for finding beds for those struggling with addiction, tying performance bonuses to reps who are most successful.
  • Create permanent housing subsidies and separate shelter options for people who want to maintain their sobriety as they work to get back on their feet. 
a chair with a pink cardigan belonging to Jami Taylor is draped over the back at a table in a room inside a drug treatment facility.
A sweater worn by Jami Taylor draped on a chair inside the drug treatment facility where she gets treatment.
(Ethan Ward
/
LAist)

Taylor thinks everyone currently employed at 211 LA would be eager to take on this new role based on her conversations with agents, describing them as truly compassionate.

“They can call,” Taylor said. “They're on an hourly job. They can get you into a bed. Why do I have to call? I don't even know how I’m going to charge my freaking phone.”

Taylor, who plans to stay in her treatment facility for 30 days then move to sober living, said it’s in everyone’s best interest to save unhoused people. Why? Because unhoused people who are forced to survive, often turn to prostitution, leading to the spread of viruses like Hepatitis C or HIV.

“You know, that bleeds into the community,” Taylor said. “No one fucking belongs on the streets. No one belongs in those conditions.”

What questions do you have about homelessness?
Ethan Ward for a time lived in his car while attending community college. That experience informs his reporting on one of the most pressing issues in Southern California.