Editor’s Note: For over a year, we’ve been bringing you first-person stories about health. Now, we’re digging deeper. Each month, we’ll be exploring a different health issue and asking diverse community members across the state to share their own stories on that theme. It’s a project we’re calling “Vital Signs.”
This month we look at the health needs of people who are homeless. Accurate statistics on homeless Californians are hard to get, but by some estimates roughly one in four people who are homeless abuse drugs. And homeless people face unique challenges when trying to quit.
Today we hear from Julie Gates and Elena Wilson. The two met seven years ago in Chico. Both women struggled with addiction and Gates, who goes by the nickname “Jewels,” sold drugs to support her own habit. In largely rural Butte County, it was hard for them to find treatment they could afford and were daunted by months-long waiting lists for help. Now clean and sober, the two women volunteer at the Hope Center in Oroville, giving back to the homeless community. They talk to one another about their journey.
By Julie Gates and Elena Wilson
ELENA WILSON: Jewels and I, there were periods of time we didn’t see each other but either at the lowest of out lows, and now, at the highest of our highs, God has brought our paths back together.
JULIE GATES: Absolutely.
WILSON: The last time I had seen her before I got clean, I was acutally kicking heroin in Chico. I was homeless. I was really, really sick. And I didn’t have any money and I couldn’t find any heroin. She went and bought me a pack of cigarettes and gave me a little bit of some methanphetamine to do with, to trade, or whatever. She said she’d try to find me some pills.
GATES: I know that’s sick sounding.
WILSON: But at the time, I was like, oh my gosh. I was dying.
GATES: I mean, it breaks my heart now thinking about it.
WILSON: Most of the places I went to you had to be clean to get help and I couldn’t get clean to get help. That’s why I couldn’t stay at the shelters.
In 2012, California was among the top five states with the highest rates of homelessness–nearly 131,000 Californians were homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
In 2007, roughly 9 percent of all homeless people in the U.S. lived in rural areas, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
GATES: There’s really not that many options for residential treatment in this area. We’re lacking. Especially financially. Yeah, if you have $3,500 in your pocket then, no problem.
I was trying to quit drugs so badly. And I knew I was on probation so I was like I’m going to get busted anyway because I can’t quit drugs.
So they finally arrested me. I was in jail and they gave me three months for my violation. And I was like, yay. I put my feet up on the cot. Great, I’m finally going to get clean. This is fantastic. And then eight days later, [they tell me,] ‘Gates, roll it up.’ And it’s midnight and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to get kicked out of jail’.
And I just remember that feeling. It’s a nightmare, nightmare feeling, when you just finally want to get clean.
There comes a time where you don’t want to use drugs, but you’re using drugs. And as much as you want to be healthy and you want to stop– your addiction is your addiction.
WILSON: If you don’t have the money to get clean, there’s not not really anywhere to go except for jail. And then you’re not learning any tools in jail to stay clean when you get out of jail.
I checked myself into a ministry. I was there for about three months, and I went to a serenity meeting and low and behold, there was Jewels. And we were ecstatic.
GATES: We’re both taking this class here to become alcohol and drug counselors, Christian-based. To give back.
WILSON: We’re a good team. Way better team than we were on the streets.
GATES: Oh, yes.
Listen to Wilson and Gates’ story here:
How has homelessness affected the health of your community? Share your story with us.