How do you respond to the man with the cardboard 'Homeless' sign?

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to homelessness. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, the ENNA Foundation and LISC.

We’ve all heard it: “Don’t give him money. He’ll just use it to buy drugs or alcohol.”
 
Maybe, says Nancy King, executive director of COPE Network of Kalamazoo. But if you walk a few miles in the shoes of someone holding a cardboard “Homeless” sign, maybe you would too.
 
“We have to stop asking what’s wrong with them and start asking what happened to them?” says King, whose nonprofit organization is working to help create a community “that supports understanding and compassion for people affected by substance use disorder.”
 
Nancy King is executive director of the COPE Network, serving eight southwest Michigan counties.Trying to understand the man or woman asking for money allows for compassion, she says, and it “allows us to narrow in on why they are living the way they’re living.”
 
People who are unhoused and living on the street are in survival mode, she says. She has learned that through her work with COPE Network as she helps individuals and families try to improve their lives and as she collaborates with others to provide resources for people trying to recover. There are lots of events that cause debilitating trauma, she says. 
 
Would you have a drink or get high if your marriage ended? Or if you lost your job? Or were sexually or physically abused? Or were overwhelmed by medical problems and bills? Or were consumed with fear from a mental disorder?
 
On top of any that – how would you respond if you found yourself living in a car or on the streets because you can’t make the rent, you cannot live with relatives, and you have worn out your welcome at the home of friends?
 
People use drugs and alcohol to try to cope with or escape psychological pain, says King, whose world changed in 2012 when her 21-year-old daughter died of a heroin overdose. Marissa was a bright, active student with a promising future, but struggled and became isolated as she tried to cope with traumatic incidents during her life. She started using heroin in 2009.
 
Because alcohol and drugs are initially successful at deadening people’s emotional pain, many people keep using them, King says. But addiction brings health risks and often leads to criminal behavior as users struggle to get the money they need for drugs.
 
So those who give money to people on the street have to have the compassion to understand, “They’re going to use that money for whatever they need to use it for,” she says. And tell yourself, “ I’m not judging the fact that they might use that money for drugs.”
 
Volunteers are shown assembling Narcan kits as part of COPE Network's Naloxone Distribution Program. The medication is used to counteract the initial effects of a drug overdose.When asked about the relationship between drug and alcohol addictions and homelessness, King talked about the need to change perceptions about people with such diseases. 
 
She says, “I want people to think outside the box about what harm reduction is (regarding addiction), what it looks like, and who are the people who use drugs, and who people are who have addiction.” That is necessary, she says, to stop people from thinking narrowly and simplistically that drugs are bad, and that people who use drugs are bad.
 
The national war on drugs that many adults grew up with in the 1980s helped shape negative perceptions about people on drugs, she says. It included the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, in which police officers visited schools to warn youngsters about the potentially deadly effects of illegal drugs. King says it trumpeted the criminality of drugs – that drug dealers are bad and, by extension, so are people who use drugs. But she says becoming addicted is not a moral failing. It is a reach for emotional relief.
 
She says she is very worried that young people in this age of computers and COVID are facing all kinds of anxiety and stress but aren’t learning effective coping skills, such as meditation, breathing, and relaxation. She suggests those be taught at a very early age. And she says they are ironically prescribed drugs that, themselves can be a crutch. She says she doesn’t believe news reports that illegal drug dealers are targeting children and teens with colorful Fentanyl pills.
 
“Colored Fentanyl has been around for a very long time,” she says. “And nobody’s going to be giving their drugs to a kid. ... That’s not how it works.” 
 
She says there continue to be risks for young people who want to use illegal drugs to alleviate their pain. But she says she does not see drug dealers targeting youngsters with Fentanyl.
 
Coffee and Canvas, in which participants produce artwork, is among the personal growth, recreational, and community-building activities run by COPE Network.“My concern is (that) our youth right now are under a tremendous amount of stress,” she says. “ … They are trying to figure out how to navigate and cope with this crazy society that we are building right now. With social media, their depression level is increasing. The suicide rate is increasing. And they’re just looking for a way to get out of it.”
 
She also reminded us that although everyone has to deal with trauma – whether it’s a divorce, a death in the family, an assault, or a barrage of fear -- something that may seem insignificant to one person may have a profound effect on another.
 
King joined COPE in 2015 and leads its efforts to provide support, resources, and programming to hundreds of people in eight southwest Michigan counties. Those are Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, and Van Buren counties. The organization has four employees, including King, and operates on an annual budget of about $200,000. That funding is primarily a result of two grants.
 
One is used to run the Kalamazoo Harm Reduction Program. It provides free harm-reduction supplies such as new syringes to registered program participants to prevent the spread of bacteria and disease. Participants include about 300 people. The other grant covers the cost of COPE Network’s Naloxone Distribution Program. It supplies free medication kits and trains people in the use of naloxone (also known by the brand name Narcan) to slow the heart rates of people who are overdosing and save their lives.
 
According to King, COPE has disseminated more than 12,000 Narcan kits and has provided training in their use to more than 14,000 people (including police officers) since that program began here in 2015. Before the COVID-19 outbreak forced the organization to vacate a 10,000-square-foot former church space on East Mosel Avenue, it had 100 to 120 individuals who regularly participated in personal growth, recreational, and community-building activities to help in the recovery process. Those included yoga, Tai Chi, guitar, and art. 
 
It now operates out of a small 1,300-square-foot former doctor’s office at 2401 Gull Road but hopes to find more spacious quarters using a $657,000 grant it has been awarded through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
 
COPE Network can be contacted at 269-580-8290 or via email here
 
King says she has become much more aware of the unhoused since 2020. COPE Networks collaborates with other organizations to provide services, and she works with the Kalamazoo Coalition for the Unhoused, Integrated Services of Kalamazoo, and the Kalamazoo Consortium for Care.
 
Although good statistics on how many unhoused people struggle with addiction are difficult to find, she estimates that a high percentage of Kalamazoo’s homeless population use alcohol and drugs. And many struggle on an ongoing basis with substance use disorder. That’s the new language for what has been called substance abuse. As defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicines, “substance use disorder” is a chronic illness of the motivation and reward system of the brain.
 
New language is necessary, King says because language is powerful. No one wants to be labeled a substance abuser or drug addict as they struggle to fight addiction for the rest of their life, she explains. “If I’m having to say ‘I’m an alcoholic’ or ‘I’m a drug addict’ for the rest of my life, that doesn’t allow me to change. But if I can be ‘a person in recovery,’ that allows for change,” she says.
 
She expects some people who are unhoused and dependent on drugs to be able to quit if they find their way out of survival mode and into a different living environment. She expects others will have a difficult time dealing with their addictions. In either situation, people who cross their paths should try to be compassionate and understanding.
 
King tells the story of an acquaintance who was a physician in the 1990s when pharmaceutical company representatives provided drug samples. She says, “He came into work one day, said he had a headache, and took a Vicadin that one of the pharmaceutical reps had left. And that person said, ‘I took that one Vicadin and I knew that’s what my brain needed.’”
 
He continued to use Vicadin, developed an addiction, and eventually lost his medical license. Would he have ever taken that first Vicadin if he knew that was going to have that result? she asks.
 
“What COPE Network tries to do is help to reduce the stigmas,” King says of substance use disorder, “and help people understand that there’s a person there. They were a person first before they became a person who used drugs.”
 
She says people should ask, “What was their experience in life that allowed them to try drugs and alcohol and cause their brains to say, ‘Oh, this is what I have been looking for.’”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.