My name is Curtis Snow. This is my mutha fuckin movie! It's bout my goddam life, and all tha robbin, shootin, and wild ass shit that happens in my neighborhood, Tha Bluff. That stands for Better Leave You Fucking Fool. And... [more]
My name is Curtis Snow. This is my mutha fuckin movie! It's bout my goddam life, and all tha robbin, shootin, and wild ass shit that happens in my neighborhood, Tha Bluff. That stands for Better Leave You Fucking Fool. And in case y'all are thankin about it, yeah this shit is real! And no, I don't give a fuck about tha fuck ass Police or tha Feds!
The 21-year-old drove from his Newnan home into the notorious haven for heroin in northwest Atlanta before dawn May 1 looking for a fix. Some time during the night, he pulled over on a side street to shoot up. Quietly and alone, he succumbed to his vice one last time and died of an overdose.
Elliott fits a profile the U.S. Department of Justice found during a 2010 analysis of Atlanta’s drug market: More young Caucasians are traveling from suburban counties into the city to buy heroin. They buy a gram for about $160 and return home to abuse the drug and sell the leftovers, the analysis says.
This year, three young men from the northern suburbs died within a month of each other from heroin overdoses, prompting renewed concern around the issue.
Those deaths affirm research that shows a new type of heroin user is emerging across the nation — one that is more likely to be young, white, suburban and male. Often the users are transitioning to heroin as a cheaper alternative to prescription painkillers, the abuse of which has exploded among American teenagers.
“When these kids drive into this community, many of them find a spot where they feel safe, they go in and use drugs,” said Jeff McDowell. “That’s where a lot of ’em OD at. It’s also where they get HIV or hepatitis. So now he’s taken what was given to him in this neighborhood back out to the suburbs to perpetuate hepatitis and HIV in those communities.”
McDowell is executive director of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, a street outreach organization based in The Bluff. He has seen a steady stream of suburban heroin users slip in and out of the neighborhood.
In the mid-20th century, The Bluff was a middle-class neighborhood populated by educated African-Americans. Over the past few decades, as it became a magnet for people seeking and selling heroin, it has become a pocket of poverty marked by boarded-up homes — more than 460 of them — and lacking chain grocery stores, social services and schools.
The 1.5-mile area is bordered on the north by Donald L. Hollowell Parkway and on the south by Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Its east and west boundaries are Northside Drive and Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard respectively.
The Bluff is a place where few people would have expected to find Zack Elliott. He grew up in a world of privilege that included one of Atlanta’s finest private schools. As early as middle school, he was testing higher than most high school seniors.
He entertained friends with his guitar and dry wisecracks, but he was also a tortured soul. His father died when he was 4. And he suffered from depression and an inherited predisposition toward addiction, said his mother, Robin Elliott.
“He wanted to be clean, you know,” she said. “He went to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings almost every day for years. And then he would relapse.”
Robin Elliott has felt a pull to The Bluff since Zack’s death. She has made several visits to the area as she tries to process the loss of her only child. On her first trip, she witnessed a drug deal.
“I really do believe that police look the other way, because if they didn’t, people would be doing it in other parts of the city,” Elliott said. “It makes people think ‘if I’m in here, I can sell these drugs or I can buy these drugs.’ And that keeps drug deals from going down in Morningside or Virginia-Highland.”
But Atlanta police say they conduct routine patrols in The Bluff and send specialized units to interact with the community and conduct undercover operations aimed at drug sales.
“We recognize this is not an issue we can tackle alone and rely on the community for assistance,” said Sgt. Curtis Davenport, an Atlanta police spokesman.
That’s where the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition comes in. For the past 17 years, it has provided a broad range of services to downtrodden residents of The Bluff with an eye toward mitigating the public health threat of intravenous drug use.
Elliott returned to The Bluff with a reporter Aug. 24 to see how the coalition was helping heroin addicts.
On Jett Street, Elliott watched as coalition volunteers were quickly surrounded by a few dozen people who sauntered up for a hot meal.
Some visitors also discreetly accepted a paper sack containing an assortment of condoms, syringes, alcohol swabs, small bottles of bleach (to clean used needles) and rubber sleeves made for spark plugs that double as crack pipes.
The organization “meets people where they are,” McDowell said, by providing food, showers, clothing and counseling. It builds a relationship with drug-addicted clients so it can gently urge them to seek treatment. About 70 clients are referred to detox programs every year.
Volunteers also collect about 4,000 used syringes a month in its needle exchange program. Those are syringes that otherwise might be tossed where others could prick themselves. And because the organization’s mission is to prevent the spread of disease, workers there also conduct hepatitis education and HIV screening.
The approach is controversial, which is part of the reason the coalition is the only organization in the state that offers a syringe exchange program even though there are an estimated 80,000 people who use the needles to inject illicit drugs, hormones or insulin.
“I’m sure it’s hard for some parents,” McDowell said. “They may say: ‘What the hell, you’re giving my kid a syringe? You might as well give him a loaded gun.’ But those who see it as encouraging drug use only look at it from the standpoint of addiction and treatment, not from a public health perspective.”
The coalition currently serves about 150 people a day in The Bluff on a meager operating budget of $341,000 a year with a staff of three full-time and three part-time workers. Its funding comes from government and private grants, private donors and local government contracts.
The syringe exchange program, however, is excluded from state and local government funding.
Some organizations, such as the Drug-Free America Foundation, are critical of syringe exchange programs, saying the programs enable addicts and don’t encourage them enough to seek treatment. Massive amounts of needles are handed out without enough accountability for returning them, Calvina Fay, the executive director of the Drug-Free America Foundation, said last week during a phone interview.
“We believe the better thing to spend money on is to provide more treatment beds and more types of leverages to get people into treatment, like drug court,” Fay said.
Elliott said her son once confessed that he hung around other addicts who shared dirty needles. For that reason, she supports the concept behind syringe exchanges.
Zack had been living with his grandparents in Newnan and working, and had been sober for about six weeks when he disappeared May 1 with his grandfather’s car. Elliott, a real estate agent who lives in Morningside, said her father-in-law called later that day to tell her that Zack was found dead on Cairo Street.
When Elliott talked about Zack’s death, Michael Maclin, who at 60 is one of the neighborhood’s veteran heroin users and needle exchange participants, shook his head in dismay.
When he was younger, friends introduced Maclin to the prescription painkiller Dilaudid and then to heroin. He kicked the habit for close to 10 years from the mid-’80s to mid-’90s, but a divorce sent Maclin into a downward spiral.
“I have cried many days, wishing and hoping I could kick this thing,” Maclin said. “I don’t want to die using drugs. I still have some productive years left.”
Elliott was heartbroken and yet hopeful about what she heard from people on the street — especially Maclin, whom she now prays for daily — and by how the coalition is helping them. People who have experienced addiction know it is a sickness that crosses all boundaries, she said.
“I think that the connection sort of supersedes everything of white/black or what side of town you live on,” Elliott said. “Addiction can happen to anyone, anywhere. It could happen to people you don’t expect it to happen to. And there is a bond there between people that understand how overpowering that addiction is.”