Heroin abuse under a spotlight in Detroit after death of Philip Seymour Hoffman

The tragic news of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death this past Sunday and his heroin relapse after years in recovery has caused national and international headlines about the drug’s big comeback.

But in Detroit the drug didn’t need a comeback: it has been crippling communities and killing citizens for years.

Doctors working shifts at the Detroit Medical Center’s Emergency Room in the heart of the city say heroin overdoses are daily occurrences. Strike up a conversation with a Detroit resident and stories of loss and death of family members and friends as a result of heroin use are the rule, rather than the exception.

“When it’s Detroit, people don’t pay attention,” Andre Johnson, 44, a former addict who has been clean for over two decades and has since founded the Detroit Recovery Project, a center founded to help addicts on the path to recovery, said.

Johnson, who has lost “at least a couple dozen” personal acquaintances as a result of heroin use, including his step-father, says alarms are raised when the problem of heroin addiction is seen as a suburban, white problem, as opposed to an urban black one.

“In 2006, a girl in the suburbs died from a heroin overdose and the press went wild, but in Detroit we have hundreds of cases every year.”

Detroit, where median household income is just $26,955, is 82 percent African-American, in stark contrast to its much whiter, much wealthier suburbs, including Grosse Pointe, which is 93 percent white with a median household income over three times what it is in Detroit.

Heroin use in Detroit is tied to other socio-economic factors, including lack of job opportunities, Johnson says. “Kids in the suburbs are getting jobs at their local grocery stores and hardware stores and getting an early introduction to work […] But in Detroit, there aren’t any jobs, there is a proliferation of drugs.”

Beyond its easy accessibility, the draw to heroin can be explained by its cheapness in Detroit – just $5 for a hit – and its ability to make users escape reality.

“It makes you feel invisible,” 66-year-old Detroiter Charles Coleman, a former heroin user, says.

Coleman’s personal experiences with the drug in the city have led him to feel it is an “epidemic,” with the problem “being swept underneath the rug” by authorities, he says.

Darren Reese, 53, a former mid-level drug dealer and addict, says heroin was the most popular drug he sold when he was dealing in Detroit between 1996 and 2006.

Recently, heroin has also become a suburban problem, with people suffering injuries becoming addicted to painkillers such as OxyContin and switching over to cheaper heroin as their prescriptions run out.

Detroit is a destination place for people in the region wanting to buy drugs. The overstretched police force turns a blind eye. In extreme cases, suburbanites have even moved into Detroit in order to be closer to the drug.

Just one state over in Chillicothe, Ohio, Cheryl Seymour, a 45-year-old server at IHOP, says heroin has become so bad in her community that she feels like “dead bodies are lining the streets.”

Two of Seymour’s sons, 21 and 22, are heroin addicts after getting hooked on pain killers as teenagers, with one now behind bars after Seymour called the police and had him arrested. “I didn’t know what else to do.”

Seymour speaks at local churches and events to try and raise awareness about a drug she says everyone forgot about, but is consuming her community.

To Johnson at the Detroit Recovery Project, incarceration is not the answer to resolve the heroin problem. Funding towards prevention and treatment, including mental health treatment, is what is needed, he says. So far funds, especially public funds, have been lacking, Johnson says.

Michigan’s department of corrections budget currently exceeds $2 billion.

Hoffman’s death following a relapse after 23 years in recovery is a sign battling addiction is a lifelong process, Reese, who is now a recovery coach, says. “Addiction is a disease,” he said, “you can’t escape it.”

Johnson spoke more crudely. “If you do not maintain recovery, you relapse, and when you relapse it leads to jail, prison or death.”

To community members battling heroin in Detroit, while Hoffman’s death is devastating, it may help shed light on a problem long ignored: not just heroin use, but the rocky road of recovery and the need for help, and funds, along the way.