How the Pandemic Hit People Who Use Drugs, in Their Own Words
In some ways, the coronavirus pandemic has hit marginalized people who use drugs the hardest. Harm reduction facilities have been forced to drastically cut back their hours, reducing access to sterile supplies. Quarantine drove people to use more, and to use alone. Global supply-chain disruptions left many getting their drugs from unfamiliar sources. Fewer people on the street means fewer opportunities—and drastically fewer safe opportunities—to earn money through selling drugs or sex work. Social distancing makes it harder for communities of marginalized drug users to do what they have always done best: take care of each other.
But in other ways, the pandemic has merely brought these communities more of the same. Crises that many Americans now face for the first time—loss of steady income; loss of housing; inability to access healthcare; chronic illness and stress—are the conditions that so many people who use drugs have endured for years. Jobs were already inaccessible; housing was already exclusionary; healthcare was already unaffordable; never feeling safe was already the norm.
A routine failure of mainstream journalism is to write about drugs without listening to the people who use them. To that end, Filter sked a handful of marginalized people who use drugs to share, in their own words, what the past few months have been like for them. Our interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Vandi: A 50-year-old Black man in New York City, who identifies as straight.
I’m from Sierra Leone. I’ve been in New York the past 14 years. I’m in the shelter, but I move from the shelter because the guys, the dealers, they give me credits—I just come and they give me, I pay double every time. So I’m not able to save my money. So I live in the streets presently. The pandemic has not changed that for me. I’ve been living on the streets for a while.
Crack cocaine, I smoke it. That’s what I’ve been using since 2007. Before, the dealers, they always around. Whenever you come, you can find them, you can get it. But now, most of them—it’s a lot of changes, because even the dealers themselves, they don’t sell all the time now. The pandemic changed that.
Oh, of course I’m using more than what I used to! I spend my whole paycheck. I spend my whole paycheck till the last penny’s gone. It’s because I’m stressed out, you know; I’m stressed out, I’m so stressed out. I don’t even have a permanent job, because I lost my job because of this same pandemic. So now I have a temporary job from welfare that will finish next month. So I’m stressed out. After next month, how am I gonna get another job? That’s what I’m thinking about. It causes so much stress.
Things was hard before—people don’t have jobs even then. But now, everything’s closed.
I’m worried about the virus. Of course. You see behind my ears right here, I’m having problems. I have this mask 24 hours. Since this whole thing started, I’m never taking this thing off. I have them in my backpack, I sleep with them, I wake with them. It’s so hot.
One reason I like this neighborhood, people come to help. They give you food, even chair, bedding. I always lost my bed when I got money—the shelter see me high. So I always stay out. It’s tough, honestly; the pandemic make everything worse. It’s like taking from the frying pan to the fire stove.
Things was hard before—like jobs, people don’t have jobs even then. But now, everything’s closed. So like us, the drug addicts and alcoholics, I think it makes it more worse for us. I’m so stressed. I just want to keep using and using. I give up everything. I don’t know when this whole thing’s going to stop.
Stacy: A 47-year-old white woman in Humboldt County, California, who identifies as “opportunistic.”
I live in my truck. I’ve been there probably two years. There’s just no affordable housing here, I’ve kind of given up looking. I’m on [Supplemental Security Income]. I work at two different nonprofits so I get paid a little bit, but it’s still not enough. They want you to make three times the rent. Like, who the fuck? Whoever can afford to make three times the rent probably isn’t renting.
I use meth. I smoke it or I eat it. It’s been harder to find since COVID, for sure. I’ve been going absolutely nuts because everybody has to shelter in place, shelter in place. And people are bitching like, “Oh, I’m so tired of staying home!” Look, I have a front seat and a back seat. Shut the fuck up, you only have four rooms in your house. Fuck you. I’ve got four seats.
The bathroom situation has been really sketchy. Fortunately I work at a nonprofit, so if I have to go to the bathroom I can go there. But who the hell wants to use a gas station bathroom when they’re homeless because it’s the only option, because there’s no port-a-potties, they’ve closed all the public bathrooms? I mean, the public bathrooms are disgusting anyway and they were hardly open to begin with, but it’s like they really don’t give a shit about the homeless people here.
They never have given a shit about us, and it’s just reinforced daily. One of the nonprofits I work at, we passed out tents and sleeping bags, and the cops were cutting the tents. I don’t get it. It’s like they want us to catch the virus.
I’ve honestly just been buying in bulk. With meth, a lot of people are buying in bulk, and it’s really junky a lot of the time. There’s fentanyl in everything, so we’re always testing for fentanyl. But there’s been a drought or two with speed, and that has not happened for years. It’s difficult—whoever goes down south to get it, they risk getting sick every time they go.
At times I have been using more. Because I’m stressed out, and I’m by myself, and I can’t fucking hang out with anybody, and there’s shit running through my head. I’m scared of the virus, but I’m not letting it totally get to me.
Drugs aren’t the problem—it’s housing. If there was housing, I probably would use less.
The food thing has been hard. It’s already hard being homeless and not being able to buy food in bulk, but now it’s harder to get into the stores. Everybody has to have a mask. We do provide masks to a lot of people, through our harm reduction org. COVID’s still not in our homeless population here yet. Yet. But then, we aren’t staying in shelters either. I saw online that most communities where the homeless people have been really affected by it, it’s because they went and stayed in a shelter. And we’re so rural here.
As a homeless person, relying on each other is how we survive. And most of these people seem to think that their immune systems are tough and that they’re gonna beat it, that they’re immune to it. And that’s kind of scary, because I think that everybody’s immune systems are run down.
I’ve been worried about our prostitutes, the working girls. I gave our girls a heads-up, like, why don’t you guys get thermometers? You can take your john’s temperature before you engage with him, and then if he has a temperature, then don’t do anything with him. One girl was like, “Oh my God, I’m gonna go buy thermometers for everybody!” Because that’s what the doctor’s office does, they take your temperature before you go inside.
They did have COVID motel rooms for people that were older or if their immune systems were compromised. But it seems like it’s been kinda hard to get people into those places. There have been some apartments that opened up, but it’s really hard to get into any of this shit. Even if you’re on waiting lists, it seems like they just … there’s nothing out there.
I don’t want to live in a place full of cockroaches and shit, a place of squalor, just because I have low income. And if one more person tells me to move into a clean-and-sober house, I’m gonna fucking punch them in the face. I’m 47 years old. What I do to my body shouldn’t be a stipulation to my rent. It’s fucking bullshit.
Drugs aren’t the problem—it’s housing. If there was housing, I probably would use less. I mean, I might use more at first because, yay, I got a place! But then I’ll be able to sleep at night, so I don’t have to stay high to stay up and make sure nobody fucks with me, because I can lock my doors. I can go inside.
Paula: A 52-year-old Hispanic woman in New York City, who identifies as straight.
I use heroin mostly. It’s not harder to get since COVID. It’s still the same price, $10 a bag. Sometimes I sell, too.
My mom was murdered, back in 1990. I was on a bundle-and-a-half a day habit, went down to a bundle. I’ve been here in this park at least 17 years. I have a place uptown, it’s a [single-room occupancy unit], but I basically haven’t been there in months. My neighbor that lived right next door to me passed from COVID. Thank God I wasn’t inside, because I probably would have gotten sick.
A lot of people don’t use condoms, that’s what scares me.
It’s harder to make money since COVID. Very hard. Not harder to sell, but it’s harder to make the money out here [from sex work]. Not easy no more. I mess around sometimes, if the money’s good. On like check day or something, if the money’s good.
A lot of people don’t use condoms, that’s what scares me. Second of all, they don’t show papers saying they do have corona or something. I don’t wanna fuck with that, y’know? They do what they do, they don’t care.
My case worker, she wants me to slow down on heroin. I told her that’s not gonna happen. I’ve been on this since I was 16. It’s not easy at all. And the money’s slower now, I gotta depend on my check. And cashing in from these guys here in the park.
Mark: A 39-year-old white man in San Diego, California, who identifies as gay.
I use crystal meth. It was maybe once or twice a year for the first few years. Around 2012 is when I really started using a little more frequently, a couple of times a week. Going out, partying, having fun type-of-thing. It didn’t affect anything. I always paid for food and rent first.
Health issues put me on the street in 2017, because I couldn’t work and lost my income. That’s when it really amped up. Here in San Diego it’s a very sad truth that when you’re homeless on the street you can find drugs easier than you find food. I don’t know how it is in other parts of the country, but I can’t imagine it’s much different. I used to take an eight-ball—3.5 grams—and make that last a week when I was indoors. I can go through that in two days, sometimes one day, now.
Prior to COVID, I was just buying an eight-ball. I’d say the most I’d ever spend was $50. Now I actually buy larger quantities, but if I were to buy just an eight-ball [during the pandemic], it’d probably be $65 or $70. If I were doing an ounce, which is what I generally buy now, that would cost me $130 to $150. Since COVID, it’s anywhere from $225 to, I actually spent $350 on an ounce.
It’s gotten a little more difficult to get, just because here it usually comes right across the border and with COVID it’s harder to get people across the border. I’ve been lucky enough that I know some of the right people. There are times I’ve had to wait a day or two.
The biggest challenge has been making sure we have access to clean supplies. But that’s already difficult without COVID.
I’m still using daily. I actually found myself using a little bit less during the pandemic, just because for me personally, I was homeless the last three years but just started renting a room. It’s private housing. I’m trying to not have guests, because I’m trying to be a good tenant, and I don’t necessarily like smoking alone. I do every now and then, but I like having people to hang and chill with.
The biggest challenge has just been, on the harm reduction side of things, making sure we have access to clean supplies. But that’s already difficult without COVID. We have an exchange program here that’s great, but it’s only for three hours, three days a week, and it’s a one-for-one exchange. Some people here are trying to start a program, which I’ve been helping with for the last couple of months, that’d be a mobile peer exchange—you go meet the person and it’s not one-for-one anymore, it’s whatever they need. We’re hoping to get that off the ground soon; I’m really looking forward to that.
One thing that’s changed in San Diego since COVID is some people are a little less judgemental, I’ve noticed. Not necessarily toward drug users, but on the homeless side, because that’s affected a lot of people, losing their jobs. They see it could happen to anybody. So some of the judgment’s dying down, which kind of helps with drug users as well.
Everyone sees us and they see the stereotype, and that’s not the case. We all just have our own thing we need to do to get through.
Andrei: A pseudonym for a 36-year-old white man in New York City, who identifies as straight.
I was born and raised in the Village. Went to college in Wisconsin, then back here. I’m living with my parents right now—me and my girlfriend lived with another guy in a studio apartment and I just got into a fight with him, a physical fight with him, so he kicked me out.
My girlfriend’s stuck there now, so me and my girlfriend are not seeing each other because I’ve been stuck at my parents’ and I’ve been on the run the past two days.
Since COVID started? I’ve increased. Increased. Increased.
I quit heroin three or four years ago, I’m on Suboxone. I use crack now. Since COVID started? I’ve increased. Increased. Increased. The stress of my girlfriend, my living situation. It’s hard because my mental health is bad.
When I’m sober, I cannot talk. I cannot conversate. I’m depressed, so doing this kind of makes me feel like I can breathe. Even though I act crazy sometimes—when I use too much, I start hallucinating.
Price and everything is the same as before. The only thing is the trains don’t work, so you’re stuck. Even if I want to get a couple of fucking bags and go home and do it there and go to sleep, I can’t. And when I’m out on the street, I cannot fucking sleep. I feel too uncomfortable, because I’ve been in prison, and there was too many cuttings and fights and I’m afraid of that happening. People will attack for no reason. And I mean, I fight, but…
I’m worried about coronavirus, yeah. My parents are old, I don’t wanna give them corona. I know I’m fucking around, but I don’t wanna kill them. I’m on public assistance. I’m trying to get on Social Security; they’ve denied me, like, three times.
Living like this, we cannot maintain relationships. We cannot maintain a job. We cannot maintain food. During COVID, but then without COVID, too. But I think a little bit worse during COVID because people are more hesitant to talk to you now. Here, lemme put this mask back on—I don’t have the virus but I don’t wanna give it to you.
This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.
* Kastalia Medrano is a journalist interested in stories about drugs, mental illness and public health. Her work has appeared in publications including Newsweek, Vice, Gizmodo, Vox and Teen Vogue. She is a volunteer at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center and lives in Manhattan.