Chicago’s former addicts help addicts recover

chicago recovery alliance harm reduction staff
Susie Gualtieri, a staff member at Chicago Recovery Alliance, waits for participants to stop by her organization's truck in Humboldt Park. The non profit provides free hygienic syringes and other supplies to drug users. (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)

By Anna Boisseau

It’s nearly 12:30 p.m. when a rushed young man drops by the Chicago Recovery Alliance’s parked silver truck in West Garfield Park. He’s turned away for HIV testing, but told to come back next week, but just a bit earlier. The truck can’t be late for its next stop in Austin. If the staff and volunteers don’t show up, addicts might think the program, like others facing budget shortfalls, is unreliable. And that means next time they need clean syringes, they might not come back to the truck.

“If you don’t show up because it’s raining out or you know it’s going to be slow…then they might not get the stuff they need,” said John Gutenson, who has been with the program for 15 years. “And they might not rely on you the next time because you weren’t there.”

The number of participants fluctuates at each site, but non-profit Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA)’s message stays the same: to advocate for any positive change. The organization’s idea is to reduce harm among drug users by giving them access to hygienic supplies like syringes and “cookers,” a small container used to prepare heroin for injection. CRA also provides information on how to use naloxone to overturn an overdose, and free testing for HIV and Hepatitis C.

If and when participants are ready to seek help for their addiction,  CRA can refer them to a treatment provider. But that doesn’t happen with everyone, and that’s not really the point. The alliance focuses on treating addicts like other humans, and letting them know someone cares about their wellbeing.

Gutenson knows the importance of just being there until an addict seeks help. A former user, he is one of several staff members of CRA that decided to help other addicts after becoming clean.

“Helping people until they figure things out made perfect sense to me,” he said

After losing a stepson to an overdose, Gutenson wanted to deal with his feelings of guilt.

“I did get high for a few years while he was around me, so I was feeling badly that I might’ve in fact influenced his life in a negative way,” he said. A friend and staff member of CRA suggested he get involved with the organization. Gutenson ran his own business at the time, but gave it up to work full time at the Recovery Alliance.

“I kept finding myself wanting to be at the van when I was out making real money,” he said.

Chicago Recovery Alliance's truck
Chicago Recovery Alliance’s silver trucks make daily stops throughout the city. (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)

Now, the room where he used to shoot heroin has been converted into a storage space for clean needles, he said. Drug users in the western suburbs can swing by if they are in need of hygienic supplies. Though he is a full-time employee of the alliance, and goes out on site visits at least three times a week, he does this outside of work.

Wednesday evening, volunteer Benjamin Wegner is at the Chicago Recovery Alliance’s Lawndale location getting supplies ready for a site visit. He uses tweezers to put white cotton balls into little plastic baggies. He calls it a “mundane task,” but enjoys the work enough to have come back to volunteer weekly since August.

“I work part time as a barista and let me tell you that the participants of the CRA …are much friendlier than people who come up to pick up coffee.”

Wegner is a graduate student in clinical psychology, a contributing factor to his interest in harm reduction, but not the source of it. It was his personal experience with 12 step programs that made him want to see what other treatment options existed. Wegner became active in AA to deal with a severe drinking problem, he said.

While he still supports the organization, Wegner said he had a problem with the one-size fits all approach to addiction. In particular, he said he didn’t like the lack of information provided about naloxone, the drug that reverses overdoses.

“They know you’re going to relapse. Most people relapse dozens of times before they get sober,” he said. “If you know someone’s going to relapse, why don’t you tell them about naloxone?”

chicago recovery alliance naloxone
Chicago Recovery Alliance gives out naloxone, a drug that helps reverse overdoses, to its participants. (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)

He found he connects more with the Chicago Recovery Alliance’s focus on bringing people into the fold of care.

“People are getting access to care because we’re not judging them. If we said you couldn’t receive any of these things until you don’t have drugs in your system, what we’re doing is to set a really high threshold that people need to meet in order to reach services,” he said. “We’re simply lowering that threshold to where people are actually at.”

Back on the truck, CRA staff members Cheryl Haull and Susie Gualtieri note that it’s been a slow day in West Garfield Park. They never know what to expect from site visits because there are many  contributing factors to whether participants stop by for supplies.

Faces brighten when one familiar client, enters the truck. Haull and Gualtieri run up to him and give him a hug.

“How’s the hustle been, babe?” Gualtieri asks him. He takes a few boxes of syringes and other supplies and says he’s been lucky and hasn’t had to hustle much this week. However, he also shares that one of his friends died that morning.

Haull asks if it was an overdose and if he tried to revive his friend, but learns he wasn’t with him at the time. If they are open to it, participants of the CRA are trained in how to use naloxone and given supplies.

Haull has worked for CRA for 22 years, but she said she wasn’t convinced by its methods when she first started. Early on, she found herself being critical of some of the program participants, as she herself had been in recovery for two years at that time. “I’m looking at the people who are still coming on the truck…and I found myself being kind of judgmental.”

One of the late founders of the program, George Williams, talked to her about how to think about participants who were still actively using drugs.

“I learned how to meet people where they are and understand a lot better,” she said. “When I was using drugs I didn’t have anybody tell me, ‘Hey I love you.’” Haull decided to seek help for her addiction after she got to the point of smoking crack with her daughter, something she had told herself she would never do.

“I remember one day I gave her some money to go get some [crack]. And she took too long. And I was…calling her all kind of names,” she said. “And I said ‘What the hell, what has happened to you?’ And I went and looked in that mirror and that was not Cheryl.” Even when she quit using drugs, she never expected to make a career around working with drug addicts.

Haull realized the value of her work after being placed in Englewood, the neighborhood where she had lived and used drugs. As a lot of the drug community in neighborhood knew her, it was easy to build trust.

“After working on this van for…some years, it got to this point where…it was like I remember being right there,” she said. “And it was so good to give somebody a hug. And it was so good to tell somebody that ‘I love you.’ And when they leave off this truck, they would feel so much better about themselves.”

It’s this sense of helping others go through a tough time that Gutenson says keeps volunteers and staff invested in the program. “They see that it actually changes people’s lives, that it keeps people alive,” he said. “When you’re able to do something like that, it makes all the other shit you have to do in life just to get by and survive a little more tolerable.”

Susie Gualtieri, a staff member at Chicago Recovery Alliance, waits for participants to stop by her organization’s truck in Humboldt Park. The non-profit provides free hygienic syringes and other supplies to drug users. (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)