A town hall on the heroin epidemic drew former addicts, struggling parents and law enforcement officials who fight the drug to West Hills Community Church on Sunday.
And while all shared different stories, there was a collective message to the more than 100 people in attendance:
Heroin can make life hell – not just for those addicted to it, but their families and neighborhoods, too. But no one has to fight it alone, a group of speakers said.
“There is hope,” said Shane Streets, church Pastor Dave Streets’ nephew – and a former heroin addict. “It doesn’t have to be ... a death sentence.”
Shane Streets – and his family – said they were proof of it.
Years of partying eventually led him to heroin, and he said he woke up one morning realizing he was hooked on the drug.
Streets recalled the shame of telling his parents – people who raised him right, he said – that he needed the powerful drug to get out of bed, function all day –and even sleep at night.
It took faith in God, family support and a year of inpatient drug rehab in Missouri – after a six-month stint wasn’t enough – to get him on the right track.
“Now, recovery and sobriety has become a passion of mine,” said Shane, who is a drug counselor at Peniel Residential Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Johnstown. “The heroin epidemic is a battle. But it’s a battle that can be won together if we just tap all of our resources.”
His mother, Archie Streets, told the crowd she struggled with a mix of emotions when she watched her son leave for rehab years ago.
“I wondered what I could’ve done wrong,” she said.
She said she didn’t know who to turn to.
Having a relative battling heroin addiction “affects every phase of your life,” she said. “It affects your finances. It affects your marriage – everything.”
Today, she’s a founder of a support group dedicated to families of addicts called Hope for Hurting Parents.
Organized at her Richland church, Emmanuel Baptist, the group holds eight-week classes for parents twice a year and follow-up support meetings twice a month, she said.
“We’ve been through it,” she said, recalling days she missed warning signs like “lost spoons.” “Some people say those meetings are their life right now. It keeps them going.”
Cambria Task Force Field Supervisor Thomas Owens said area law enforcement agencies are working together to track down the major dealers who bring the drug to the area, and he cited a recent bust that nabbed 33 people, including a Pittsburgh “mastermind,” as an example. In a partnership with the district attorney’s office, all local police departments will soon have the heroin overdose revival drug naloxone – often called Narcan – in their cruisers.
And a drug court and efforts to set up a needle disposal program are also being considered, he said.
But no single effort will curb a countywide heroin problem that Coroner Jeffrey Lees said has led to countless overdoses and 18 fatal ones in 2016.
The total as of May is triple the total from the same period in 2015, he said.
“We need to all work together to change that. And it starts here in our communities,” Lees said, urging local residents to look for signs of heroin both inside their home and in their neighborhood.
Ruben Dulton, said he nearly lost two “brothers” – lifelong friends – to heroin in recent years. As hard as it is to hear, he said it was assuring to hear the community discussing the realities of heroin addiction, and that it’s not one neighborhood’s fight.
Or one family. Or one race, the Johnstown man said.
“Heroin doesn’t discriminate,” he said, crediting organizers for scheduling the town hall. “We’re all trying to deal with this.”
Signs of heroin use:
• Constricted pupils
• Track marks on arms, legs or more hidden areas
• Extreme itching
• Weight loss
• Cycles of hyper-alertness, followed by “nodding off”