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Inside one of Rochester's most overlooked street communities: Desperation and hope

Written by Robert Bell

Democrat & Chronicle

ROCHESTER, NY. − It's a regular Monday at the Loomis Street encampment, a residence for people at the crossroads of their life and a sea of homelessness, sex work, violence, and drug abuse. Carmen Camacho is the de facto leader.

"No one else will do it," she said.

You can't just pitch a tent on Loomis Street. To be part of their community, you have to follow the rules. Trash has to be kept to a minimum. Camacho cleans and distributes blankets and food. Now and then, she stops a fatal overdose with Narcan, a nasal spray used in an emergency.

Drug use on Loomis Street is rampant, and its residents believe they have a better chance of survival as a community.

Camacho has lived in the Joseph Avenue community for 15 years and had been on Loomis Street for over 18 months when she first talked to the Democrat and Chronicle that Monday in December.

"Everyone knows me on the other side of the fence," she said, referring to the homes on Maria Street, a block over from the encampment. "I was raised here, and my kids were raised in this area."

Her children are her primary motivation to get clean.

"I have a lot of work to do. I know what I did; I damaged them."

For Camacho and others suffering from addiction and mental health issues, getting help isn't as simple as entering rehab.

The obstacle course

The bureaucracy of some social programs makes treatment options so complex that those living on Loomis would rather stay on the street than open themselves up to ridicule, judgment and a potential detox.

"Withdrawal is like the worst flu you've ever had," said Patrick Burns, who's worked with Huther Doyle and Recovery All Ways, a nonprofit treatment organization. "Your skin crawls, you're hot, you're cold and sweating. It can last for 21 days. I would say for about 90% of people, it gets to a point where they have to use."

Once you begin living on the street, regaining control of your life becomes an obstacle course.

"Some don't have phones," Carmen Camacho said. "Some of us don't have IDs; some are scared because they have warrants. There are a lot of issues that we're going through, so we're just going to get pushed to the side. I went to the hospital to try and get help for my mental health, and they turned me away and told me to get a hobby."

The stigmas surrounding drug addiction can also be barriers to recovery. People at the camp have either been told they don't deserve aid or believe they aren't worthy of support due to their lifestyle.

"We all deserve help," Camacho expressed. "We shouldn't be turned away because we're on drugs. There are a lot of different types of addiction out here. Just because we shoot up through our veins, they think we're disgusting, horrible people. They put names on us without knowing who we are or where we come from."

Huther Doyle's Joel Yager wants to change what help looks like for someone like Carmen Camacho. His method? Get out of the office and bring treatment to people where they are by first giving them resources to survive, then create a space where they feel comfortable enough to ask for help.

Several days a week, Yager drives a camper van down Loomis Street filled with food, coffee, clothes, blankets and Narcan — items Camacho will eventually distribute. The van is a mobile crisis unit meant to treat people who will never walk into a treatment center but setting up shop at the encampment requires planning.

"When we first came out, we had to talk to the drug dealers so they wouldn't feel threatened that we were policing them," Yager said as he parked the van. "People wanna know how this place can exist for so long, well this how some people in this community feed their families. It's like the military. When you go into a street scene, you have to negotiate with the merchants. You have to tell them you're not there to judge them; all you want to do is make sure people don't die."

The Loomis Street encampment was put on Huther Doyle's radar after the city made attempts to clean it up, according to Yager.

"Somebody came in and said, listen, if you can't do anything, can you at least take a look at this place," he recalled. "We got there, and I couldn't even believe I was in the United States. When I was in the Marine Corps, I remember this tent city in Jakarta, Indonesia, called the graveyard. It was prostitution and heavy drug use; it was just this area of decadence, and all these people were homeless. When I pulled up to Loomis, it was the same thing. You could smell the infection on them. Half of them were dying."

The Marine Corps launched Yager's 43-year career in substance abuse treatment. After learning a small base in Tustin, California, didn't have his job specialty, he took a position as a DUI counselor. He's been helping people fight their addictions since that moment.

His telehealth approach came from a stint in the state's Southern Tier, where he coordinated three vans to go into the rural mountains searching for people who wouldn't come into the city for treatment. He's been able to connect with a range of personalities most of his career.

Yager even spent time as a tattoo artist on the carnival circuit.

"Carny's read your soul," he said. "The only difference between a carny and a social worker is the social worker can't tell your height and weight."

Lead with humanity

Yager came to Western New York in the mid-'80s during the height of America's war on drugs and the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged Black and brown communities.

"Nobody gave an (expletive) about them," Yager said regarding treatment services and the country's temperament during that time. "That was a terrible epidemic. It ruined the inner city; it ruined people and it got no press. It wasn't until Johnny in Pittsford gets hurt, prescribed opioids then gets addicted to heroin. It's terrible when you look at our society and why the money to help is now available. When you go out to Loomis Street, there are a lot of white people in those tents."

When Joel and his team arrived, Carmen Camacho wouldn't come near the van. "She just stood from a distance and watched us," Yager said.

Their presence made the camp nervous and wary of the intruders' intentions.

"It was scary," Camacho said. "It took me a while; it was a couple of months before I trusted them."

The Huther Doyle team taught the camp a buddy system with Narcan and encouraged the idea of caring for their space to preserve it. The sentiment was that if everyone could watch each other's back, no one would die.

Eventually, people trusted the mobile unit enough to get in a car and see a doctor for infections caused by sharing needles. Yager said the key was leading with humanity.

"You just have to be like, here's a chair, have a seat, let's hang out," he explained. "A lot of these people have been severely traumatized as children. Some families will visit their kids out there but don't want them living in the house because the relationship got strained."

Yager said he understands addiction because of his family's history of abuse. He grew up in the Catskills with a jazz musician father who he describes as a "big partyer." Sitting in support groups over the years has made him feel at home.

"Nobody comes into the drug and alcohol field by choice; they get in by mistake, " he said. "If they're good at it, it's because they were scared themselves."

When Yager travels to Loomis Street, certified recovery peer advocates join him.

"I handpick my team," he said. "People I know are not going to blink when someone's right in front of them shooting up into their infectious limbs. They're not trying to judge anybody. I don't want people that are going to be overwhelmed because then you're just going to overwhelm the person you're trying to help."

'A right to live'

On that rainy Monday morning — when a reporter first met Carmen Camacho — Stephanie Forrester and Patrick Burns accompanied Yager.

Burns greets a pair of drug dealers who have set up shop early while Forrester checks on Camacho in her tent.

Forrester's preferred method of treating people at the camp is harm reduction, a strategy designed to lessen the consequences of drug abuse.

Those strategies include needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and distribution of Narcan kits.

"Things like that, you see in New York City, they really provide a layer of protection," Patrick Burns said. "People think we're enabling, no, we're saving lives. Everybody has a right to live."

"When we start thinking about taking care of ourselves when we're actively using, that's a huge part of recovery," Forrester added.

Forrester and Burns share a compassionate technique when dealing with addiction. They've both abused drugs themselves in the past.

Burns was 13 when he first tried heroin. A friend's older brother introduced them while hanging out in their basement.

"It's absolute heaven for the first two or three times, and then it took its hold on me really, really quick," he said. "I didn't stop until I was 35."

He says he had a good upbringing. His lifestyle resulted from curiosity, being "young and dumb."

Throughout his addiction, Burns kept a stable job in construction but lived in a tent on the street, working only to feed his habit. He ruined family relationships and spent time in prison for armed robbery.

He credits a compassionate therapist for his current sobriety. Helping others get sober is part of his recovery.

"It's therapeutic for me," Burns said. "It reminds me of where I was and never want to be again."

Forrester became addicted to Percocet after receiving a prescription for dental surgery. She went from pills to cocaine before spiraling to heroin after her mother died. Forrester was adopted. The parents she grew up with gave her a good upbringing, but it wasn't enough to quell identity issues. After multiple overdoses, she eventually lost custody of her children.

"It got to the point where I knew if I didn't do something soon, I was going to die," Forrester said. "I was kind of OK with that, but I really wanted my kids; I missed them terribly."

Forrester has been sober for six years now.

Camacho also hopes to reconnect with her children.

On Loomis Street, Huther Doyle began working with Person Centered Housing Options, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to address, prevent, and alleviate chronic homelessness within Monroe County.

The organization worked with Camacho to try and find her stable housing. She was scheduled to move into her new apartment the day after our first interview with her — a small victory for the Yager, Burns, and Forrester.

"She's tough," Burns said. "There is nothing on this earth that's going to stop Carmen from doing what she wants to do. I think that comes from a life of living on the street."

After successfully securing housing, Camacho made sincere attempts to get clean, and another woman took over as leader of the Loomis Street encampment. The story was nearly a success, but six months later, as Rochester entered the summer of 2022, Camacho's apartment was empty, and she was back on the streets.

Returning to the camp

Loomis Street wasn't the same upon Camacho's return. The camp was disorganized and full of trash. Stephanie Forrester and Patrick Burns decided to leave Huther Doyle. Forrester is now focused on working with other organizations like Recovery All Ways and Hope Dealers, a program she started.

She blames her exit on a growing feeling that Huther Doyle is motivated by monetary interest rather than doing what's necessary to help people.

Joel Yager believes Forrester's frustration stems from a new grant Huther Doyle received for the mobile unit. Yager will now take a group of medical students to Loomis Street, so they're best prepared to deal with drug abusers. He's seen many changes in treatment methods over his long career.

"It takes money to do the work, and the work is the most important thing," Yager said.

A new apartment complex and an abandoned building that will become an arts center bracket the encampment. With the new development, Yager fears it won't be long before the city decides to eliminate the community.

"I just want enough time to save people," he said.

When we returned to Loomis Street to speak with Camacho, she was embarrassed about her relapse. Yager's van was prepared to take her into a detox program immediately if she was ready to receive help.

Camacho decided to have a family member pick her up instead. She wants another shot at getting clean.

"It's an everyday battle," she said. "It's hard, but I fight to get better every day."

"I had a guy back in the '90s; he had 20 treatment episodes," Yager said. "His last time was his last time, and he's still sober today."

Before Camacho leaves, she shares phone numbers of treatment options with a friend in a nearby tent. The information is written on a cardboard box.

Camacho expressed the desire for her story to help the individuals on Loomis Street feel visible. "We're not just addicts; we're human beings."

"Spend five minutes talking to these people," Patrick Burns said. "A lot of them are just like members of your family. They're not bad people; they just made bad choices. This isn't the end of their road. There is life after addiction."

Credit to Democrat & Chronicle for story and photos


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