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‘Know their name’

Posted on Wednesday, November 22, 2023 at 8:00 am


The Homelessness Task Force that met last Tuesday dove into Shelbyville’s prevalent drug problem.

“We’re here talking about homelessness. But we’re also talking about addiction, mental health, trauma,” said Lt. Chris Cook, programs director at the Bedford County Jail. “I don’t think most people grasp the extent of the problem.”

Data shows overdose deaths are on the rise. “Prior to 1990, it was a real stable number, always under 20,000. There weren’t a lot of spikes,” said Cook.

And then fentanyl hit the streets by 2015, and those numbers started going up exponentially, with deaths going up to over 50,000. In 2019, it reached 72,000; 2020-2021 saw an increase to over 107,000.

“It was a game-changer in a whole lot of ways,” said Cook. He said the numbers for 2022 haven’t been released yet, but Cook predicts those numbers will show over 120,000 overdose deaths.

Cook explained that when the border was closed due to the 2020 pandemic, drugs weren’t as easily accessible. So people began getting “creative.”

“Tranq” is one of those creative drugs that came out of Philadelphia. It mixes street narcotics like fentanyl with an animal tranquilizer called Xylazine, has hits the streets. It’s resistant to Narcan. These drug mixtures place users at a higher risk of fatal drug poisoning, while injecting them can also develop severe wounds, including necrosis — the rotting of human tissue — that may lead to amputation.

Tranq is also highly addictive.

“They can put it in anything and they’ve got a brand new group of customers — lifetime customers because they don’t really quit,” said Cook.

With such an intense drug now coming to Shelbyville’s street, Cook emphasized the need to educate people and raise awareness.

“If your kids are smoking marijuana, I can tell you right now they’ve probably been exposed it,” said Cook. “This will affect every body. Every body. Every family. Every person. If you have kids, you really need to educate yourself on this.”

In addition to staying informed, the solution to combatting the area’s drug problem doesn’t just lie in capturing the drug dealers, but with implementing life-saving programs early on.

“How we win is we stop focusing all of our resources on supply. You can’t arrest drug dealers fast enough to stop this problem,” said Cook.

Cook said there’s a strong correlation between early childhood traumas — like abuse — and addition.

“I hope everybody understands these are people,” said Cook. “When we talk about people who are incarcerated or people going through addiction, we almost never talk about trauma.

“A lot of the choices that people make are the result of what happened to them at a time when they weren’t able to make their own choices,” said Cook.

Commissioner Drew Hooker, who leads the task force, said, “If we’re going to take homelessness seriously and try to work towards a solution, then we have to look at it from a holistic standpoint—how did they get there? What are the things that keep them there?” He also pointed out the lack of mental health resources in the county.

Shelbyville Police Officer Letisia Diaz, who keeps track of Shelbyville’s homeless population, said the department is out on the streets now talking to people and connecting them to agencies and programs once they’re in jail.

“While they’re in their current lifestyle, this is where we have to know them and love them where they’re at,” said Diaz. “Know their name. Know their history. Know who they are. They may look scary. They may be dirty… But there’s a heart in there. There’s a human being in there.”

Cook helps run the Moral Reconation Therapy program at the jail, for both men and women, which helps inmates realize the results of the choices they make. It’s designed to help recidivism rates. For Bedford County, Cook said of the 100 inmates that have completed the program, only five have been re-arrested.

“This is a conversation I have a lot because most people don’t necessarily like what I do. But for every person we have an intervention with and that we get back on the streets to live a normal, productive life, that decreases their children’s chances of coming to jail by three-quarters,” said Cook.

But the issue is time. Results for less incarceration rates isn’t seen until decades in the future.

“We pretty much changing the future of their grandchildren,” said Cook. ”That is how we do this. We’re not going to police ourselves out of it. We’re not going to incarcerate ourselves out it. And we’re not going to pass enough laws to make it stop.

“I was one of those people who thought they should just legalize marijuana. For years, I thought that. I don’t think that anymore.”

Cook also emphasized how most inmates doing time in jail don’t sit there and think about what they’ve done and how they can stop. They think about how they’re going to do it again and not get caught.

Kay Bartley, from the Shelbyville Soup Kitchen, said she also is involved in the women’s jail program. “The women who are in Cook’s program are so driven to not go back into their lifestyles that put them in jail in the first place. But they will tell you that being put in jail is the best thing that ever happened to them when they chose to be in a program that changed their lives.

“Our responsibility, I feel, as a city, as a county, is to support these people when they come from this program…Or else we’re going to put them back on the river.”