Sharel was twenty when she died from an overdose. Her funeral was held at the Holy Temple Christian Church on Althea Street in Providence, Rhode Island. The church tried to raise $5,000 for the expense, but only managed to raise $347.
Althea Street is short, only three blocks long. It is poor. Boarded up buildings mingle with renovated homes. An empty lot sits in the middle of one block, filled with garbage. A small path weaves through the garbage back towards a ring of old chairs under a tree. Around the chairs, on the ground, are needles, cheap bottles of vodka, and tiny bags used to hold crack. At each end of the street are stores that sell milk and cereal but make most of their money from selling single cigarettes (loosies) and cheap malt liquor. They also sell crack pipes disguised as pens or flower holders.
You can find a version of Althea Street in any American city. At the center of all of these streets you find churches. Lots of churches. Churches that occupy makeshift spaces are often the only building with lights on. Inside the churches are priests, nuns, and ministers who are part of the neighborhood. They spend their days talking and helping those who have fallen the lowest. The crack addict smoking under the trees, the junkie who falls asleep in the empty lots.
They often do this because they themselves were once that person. They do it because what brought them back from their lowest point was a person holding a Bible, or a Koran, talking to them and treating them as an equal.
On the streets you don’t find any scientists. You may find flyers offering people money to be part of studies. Studies on how drugs affect the brain or the body.
There are scientists who are dedicated to helping the addicted, who have helped us understand addiction. They are not living in the neighborhoods though. Their work is being done in labs, hospitals, and universities.
Few on the streets trust scientists. They rarely see scientists as being helpful, certainly not people who can offer hope or solace. Scientists are the people who poke you, who give you odd pills, who tell you what you should do.
Or who might give you free crack if they can measure your brain. Takeesha, an addict in the South Bronx, only met a scientist when she participated in a crack study at Columbia University, where she was paid $950 to “smoke crack made from pharmaceutical-grade cocaine.” She will never go again, “They did me up and down in the head for days. Hell no they ain’t doing that to me again.”
Her view is not uncommon. On the streets science is something that happens to you, often something bad. Clinics are often avoided, with employees seen as cold and confused, unable to do anything but bring short term relief and long term pain.
Sharel’s death was another data point in someone’s spreadsheet. Her death was personal for Willie. He knew Sharel from the neighborhood, knew her family and knew her struggles. He is a founder of another church on Althea Street, which has taken over and refurbished a building burned down by drug dealers. His church, CPH, provides free meals, morning prayers, and counseling to anyone who walks in. He watched mourners walk down the street towards her funeral. He shook his head, “We trying to stop these kids dying so young. It’s a damn shame. She was so young.”
Scientists need to be a little more like Willie. They need to get out of their libraries, universities, and labs and go to their town’s version of Althea Street and treat those who they meet as equals not subjects. They need to spend time talking and offering hope to those who don’t feel there is much hope left. They need to figure out what that hope is, and allow the possibility it may be a Bible.
Until they do that, until they do it with the equal energy of churches, those suffering won’t trust science. And for good reason.
Chris Arnade received his PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1992. He spent the next 20 years working as a trader on Wall Street. He left trading in 2012 to focus on photography. His “Faces of Addiction”series explores addiction in the south Bronx. Follow him on Twitter: @Chris_arnade
All photos by Chris Arnade