Living Rough in No Man's Land

Being homeless on Grand means dodging law enforcement — and managing addiction

Jimmy Wille has been eking out a life on Grand Avenue, trying to make enough money to get methadone — and get to the methadone clinic by public transit before it closes.
Jimmy Wille has been eking out a life on Grand Avenue, trying to make enough money to get methadone — and get to the methadone clinic by public transit before it closes. RYAN KRULL

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Wille was once a star motocross racer. An injury left him addicted to pain pills. - RYAN KRULL
Wille was once a star motocross racer. An injury left him addicted to pain pills.

Clearly visible on Wille's knee is the scar from the motorcycle wreck that set him on the path to where he is today. Fifteen years ago, he was, in his words, "the prodigy child." He raced motocross, making steep jumps with his bike on a dirt track. As a teenager he was good enough to get his gear for free. He got a custom helmet, a custom paint job on his bike. He even traveled the junior circuit, racing at the Hoosier Dome (now the RCA Dome) in Indianapolis.

Then another rider accidentally landed on him. He was put on Vicodin, he said, to manage the pain. He really enjoyed taking pills on the weekends — "it was a Friday-night thing" — and didn't think of them much differently than marijuana or booze.

He didn't realize that when he stopped taking them he was going to get sick. "It got to be that when I woke up I had to take some Vicodin just to get on with my day," he said. Vicodin led to Oxycontin which led to Fentanyl which led to Dilaudid. He snorted pills. He injected them. Like 4 million other Americans, he started using heroin.

He'd been struggling with opioids for several years when he began growing pot in the house he rented in Illinois, unbeknownst to his landlord. "I did good," he said. "I read all Ed Rosenthal's books. I went to Worm's Way for dirt. I bought seeds from Vancouver Seed Bank, which were $10 apiece. Feminized seeds. I had White Widow, OG Kush when it was brand new and Northern Lights Haze Mist, which were the best old-school strains."

Growing pot was a profitable enterprise, and in 2009 he met the woman who would become his wife. Together they spent the money he made, coming into St. Louis to party on long weekends, staying at some of the nicest hotels in the city. But he said his neighbors could smell his product and his house was burglarized. Even though not much was taken, he eventually stopped the whole operation, increasingly worried about the potential for arrest.

Two years ago, Wille and his wife had a daughter. He said all he'd ever wanted was to have a family. But then, he said, "it got rough. I couldn't catch up. You need to have money for the next day. Well, I got behind." In early 2017, after signing over temporary custody of their child to Wille's father in Illinois, Wille and his wife first came to this stretch of Grand.

On Grand, they worked as a team. He panhandled and flew signs, worked small side jobs and scored dope. She worked, too, kept their clothes clean, scratched his back.

A recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors showed that in 68 percent of cities, substance abuse was the most prevalent cause of homelessness among single adults. A 2013 study in Boston found that overdoses had surpassed HIV as the leading cause of death among its homeless population.

Yet even though addiction is a leading cause of homelessness, it's certainly not the only cause, nor is it the cause of the majority of homelessness. A recent study in New Haven, Connecticut, for instance, showed addiction to be that city's greatest cause of homelessness, yet only one in four homeless individuals named it as the primary reason for their living on the streets.

This summer Wille was arrested on a "failure to appear" for a retail theft charge and ended up spending 25 days in city jail. While he was locked up his wife sold his Doc Martens and his phone; she now lives in a community of the homeless downtown. Wille suspected she was using crack. "She's lost her mind," he said. "She went off the deep end." She doesn't know how to take care of herself, he said, and she must have panicked. He once contemplated buying a large crack rock and offering it to her just to get her to talk to him.

Wille sees his daughter as often as he can, when he is well enough and can transport himself across the river. He tries to go at least every Sunday morning. One time when we talked he was angry at himself because he'd intended to see her the day prior but failed to do so. Every morning he wakes up crying, thinking about his wife and about their daughter.

He's tried several times to get clean, and at one point a judge put him on a "fee-tox," which meant Wille could receive methadone but he would have to pay for it. The methadone allowed him to function and kept the effects of withdrawal at bay, but it also cost $17 a dose. He required a dose every day, and the methadone clinic itself was an hour away by public transit. The clinic's hours, 5:15 to 10:45 a.m., were hardly convenient, and if he arrived too late he was left facing withdrawal until the next day. If being on methadone wasn't a full-time job, it was at least a part-time one, and the morning methadone routine made it difficult to earn steady income, which in turn made it difficult to scrape together his daily $17. The dealers, unlike the clinic, came to Wille. They delivered.

He's attempted several times to quit without methadone, and he can generally get past the first four days of severe withdrawals. Then, he said, "about the fifth day comes around it's like the flu times ten. You get diarrhea real bad, anxiety, insomnia. You're hot and cold. You're sneezing. Achoo, achoo, achoo. Then after that physical part goes away the mental is hardcore on you. I'll start thinking about my wife, and the drugs have been putting all this off and hiding it in my brain. I get all depressed, and that's usually when you get started using again just to block it away."

Regular opioid use causes enduring changes in the brain, which, over time, make people physically dependent on the substance.

Christine Pace, an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University, said, "With regular heroin use, we see many chronic changes in the brain. An example is that your body expresses fewer dopamine receptors over time because it is so used to heroin massively increasing the amount of available dopamine. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters involved in a sense of pleasure and reward, so you actually end up as an addict with less capacity for these sensations than if the same person weren't addicted. You actually end up needing the drug not to feel high but to feel normal."

Wille told me about a plan to procure six wooden shipping pallets in order to build a makeshift shelter that could be disassembled easily and moved from place to place. He could attach an air conditioner and a power box.

"I shouldn't even say I'm planning on this," he said, "because that means I'm not planning on getting right."

About The Author

Ryan Krull

Ryan Krull is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times. Find him on Twitter @ryanwkrull
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