By Prerna SM Jain
New York city, “the concrete jungle where dreams are made of”, seems very mesmerizing when one sees the constantly lit up streets, and the colossal figure of the Statue Of Liberty, which is perhaps a monument that every tourist yearns to have glimpse of. But, head 15 kilometers north to East Harlem, and the cityscape seems to acquire a very dark hue. Welcome to the city with America’s highest homeless population. According to research in 2018, by the Coalition for the Homeless, there are around 62,000 homeless people in the city. The condition of these people is mortifying, and adding to their misery is the introduction of the life- threatening drug- k2.This drug is unregulated and its chemical composition is altered with each batch. It is easily accessible at Deli stores in areas that swarm with the homeless population.
K2 or Synthetic cannabinoids, are unregulated mind-altering substances and are a new psychoactive substance (NPS). K2 goes by the street-names of – Spice, Scooby Doo, Black Mamba and Joker. It is as cheap as $2 a joint (120 Rupees roughly ), and individuals consuming this drug turn into a zombie-like state. Several of them have lost their lives because of severe bleeding and overdose. According to a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 456 people have been poisoned because of K2 across the States within 5 years. The question is: who is responsible for this phenomenon?
Over the course of several weeks, I interviewed a lot of homeless people. One of the African- Americans that I spoke to, Mr. Aswaldo, told me that he came from Maryland and that he was a professional massage therapist. But, any new massage job required a minimum of 500 hours more of recorded massages in order to be able to practice. He said “I have the New York Public library card, and that’s where I stay till I can. A lot of people throw food in the garbage so I don’t have to be hungry. ” Unable to find a job, he was forced to live on the streets for years.
I , later, headed down to the East of Harlem to speak with the homeless population and K2 drug users. Outside the subway station at 10 pm in the night, I could see a bunch of homeless people huddled around at an old circular flower bed, passing the K2 filled joint to each other. An African American woman, Ms. Sabrina, told me that “I lost my housing judgment in court. I am sick and have tonsils.” Jose, (name changed), was mostly mumbling and swaying, an effect from the drug, as he was recanting his story. He told me that he lost his business and his house after someone asked him to sign business documents at a knife- point. He served time in prison and upon release, he had nowhere to go, so he became homeless and a K2 user.
Another person, Mr. Carlos, said that he lost his job, and has been homeless and on this drug since. He believes that the government should make more policies to ensure that the homeless people get secured jobs, and they should convince more homeless people to take these programs. He says “ Even if they pick up these people and give them jobs for 60 dollars a day (3,600 rupees), people would want to work”. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), says that the median wage for workers in the United States in the fourth quarter of 2017 was $170 a day). He then went on to ask me if I could help him with a job as a construction worker, maintenance man or as a laborer, and even followed up vigorously. He does want a job, but with lack of knowledge or skills, it’s very difficult to get the same. He says that the shelters are filled with rats and cockroaches, and they often have their belongings confiscated by the authorities, and in such circumstances, it becomes impossible to take refuge in these shelters.
An African- American homeless person I spoke with, Mr.Jiyan, told me, “I had a fire in my house. I don’t live in shelters because they are unprotected. Imagine being in a fight with someone in the homeless shelter, he can come inside your door and cut you. I am trying to get a residence, but you have be out six months to show as proof that you’re homeless, I don’t agree with that. People have crack all night. You have so many people on welfare who are homeless. It [Housing] should be done faster as it’s an emergency case to be homeless.” He says that he sleeps in the subway till 3pm and then goes out on the street. He used to be a graphic designer, but now his condition is such that he says “I am stealing because I don’t have money to buy food. Its gonna get cold and I don’t even have a coat.”
Mr. James (name changed), roams around the bustling 6th avenue, says that one can never understand his journey and pain. After his wife left him and just disappeared along with his children, he was forced to live on the street for 7 years. He said, “ I went crazy after she left me. I just disappeared in the world.” His children, till date, do not know about his homelessness. He says that he had to become a hit man in order to try to get back on his feet.
On another night, one could see another group of K2 users, lying down on the streets of Harlem. One of them, an African- American, Mr. Eric, was using his shoes as a pillow. His feet were completely swollen and he seemed to be in a daze. The woman next to him, who was using K2, attacked me, asking me to pay them $10. She finally seemed to relax when I told her I was a journalist and was trying to represent them. Lying on the ground, he said “ I steal food but I want to go to school. I get $825 a month through social security.
In such situations, people can easily fall prey to drugs and violence, as they are psychologically stressed, financially deprived, and constantly worried about their own safety. What is the government doing to check this phenomenon?
Nine states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana for recreational use for adults over the age of 21. Medical marijuana is legal in 30 states. Will legalizing marijuana help absolve the K2 phenomenon, or will it just encourage vendors to stock up this drug in the guise of its legal cousin? The drug epidemic is already seeping into the other branches of the society with High school students using K2.It is high time that America looks into the homeless and drug abuse situation, and not sweep this issue under the rug.
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