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Fighting Addiction and a Pandemic to Keep St. Louis' Unhoused Alive 

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Miles Hoffman, street outreach coordinator for MoNetwork. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Miles Hoffman, street outreach coordinator for MoNetwork.

Hoffman has been working for MoNetwork since July 2018. Before that he worked in the restaurant industry.

"My thing is, I had a really difficult time being in and out of recovery," he says.

A man drives up in a car, pauses, interrupting Hoffman.

"You giving this stuff away?" the man asks.

"Yeah," Hoffman says. "I got Narcan, sandwiches, bottled water, that kind of stuff."

The man nods and drives off.

Hoffman says he wants to take the MoNetwork van on more routes across north St. Louis.

"At this point I feel there are a lot of resources that are available for people who are living in south St. Louis, and a lot of people north of Delmar don't know about them," he says.

For his part, Hoffman says he began abusing opiates through prescription pills.

"I was just a curious kid," he says.

"A lot of it was trauma-based. Opiates are a painkiller," he adds. "And it's not just a physical painkiller, but it kills all kinds of pain. It does its job, and it does it really well. And I was the typical white kid from the suburbs, with the story of prescription pills and other drugs and stuff like that."

Hoffman says he was really drunk the first time he tried heroin.

"It wasn't like anything had happened," he says. "And so when I first used heroin intravenously I looked at my friend and I started laughing. 'This is going to ruin my life.' And I was joking at the time. But I was also 100 percent serious."

Tyrone, who says he's been homeless for more than three years, credits MoNetwork with literally keeping him alive.

"It's hard to be homeless and sober," he says. "If I had some place to stay, I can actually deal with my addiction. I try to work and hustle, but it's hard."

Tyrone says he isn't afraid of the coronavirus so much as he's afraid of dying alone.

"Being homeless and dying without nowhere to stay and nowhere to live with my kids," he says.

Tyrone says MoNetwork has saved his life. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Tyrone says MoNetwork has saved his life.

An hour has passed since the MoNetwork van glided to a stop in front of Russell Park. Now, with the backpacks and supplies nearly gone, Hoffman and Nagel start packing up and prepare to leave.

For an hour, the van provides an island of decency and compassion in a place and time that often seem as if they lack both. And being part of that means a lot according to Nagel, who used to work in the Madison County, Illinois, drug court.

"To be able to have a connection because I'm in recovery myself and knowing what it was like out there," she says. "That little bit of connection. And so many people who suffer from this disorder are ostracized, you know."

A back injury led her to become addicted to prescription pain pills, and then a painful journey into recovery brought her to MoNetwork as a volunteer. That led to her to working full time for the organization.

Nagel says she sees reason for optimism, regardless of how long the pandemic lasts.

"Because if we can live through something like this and muddle our way through and navigate it ourselves," she says, "if it lasts for two or three years or even forever, we're going to get used to that new normal. Because people that use drugs and people who are in recovery are super resourceful. And we're very resilient, and we're all able to adapt to crises."

Jena Nagel, peer coordinator for employment, MoNetwork. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Jena Nagel, peer coordinator for employment, MoNetwork.

She adds: "My life experience, my experience in active addiction, it has given me a purpose. And now I love to get up and go to work every day. And that sense of purpose is keeping me healthy and keeping me in recovery."

Hoffman slides behind the van's wheel, and Nagel climbs into the seat next to him. They buckle their seatbelts. A moment later the MoNetwork van pulls away, en route to the MoNetwork headquarters in south city.

There they will stock up, recharge and prepare for the next day's stop, where their customers will greet them like a lifeline.

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