Health & Wellness

On Heroin and Homeless in New Brunswick

Chelline and Rick pose near the intersection of Commercial Avenue and George Street in New Brunswick. They're addicted to heroin and have been homeless since early January.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Chelline and Rick were robbed at knifepoint around 8:30 a.m. on a weekday morning.

The robbery occurred two weeks ago on Joyce Kilmer Avenue, near New Street. Chelline was punched three times, breaking her nose, before she ran to get help from officers in the nearby family courthouse. Rick, now with staples in his stomach, took a beating that landed him in the hospital for a couple of weeks.

“I blacked out for a minute, but I’m all right,” Chelline tells TAPinto New Brunswick as Rick asks drivers in rush-hour traffic on Commercial Avenue for a few spare bucks. “It’s scary because I don’t know if the guy who did it is gonna come again.”

Sign Up for E-News

The attack was the first time anything that serious had happened to the couple—besides their shared heroin addiction.

That has cost them almost everything but the engagement ring on Chelline’s finger. Their apartment? Gone. Rick’s job as an electrician? Maybe he’ll find a new one, someday. Access to Chelline’s 7-year-old son, a big fan of wrestling and boxing? Not now.

Instead, they have the streets. Chelline and Rick, both 33 years old, have been living in the fray of New Brunswick since the first week of January. It’s an existence propped up by many hours spent panhandling. It’s a life on pause.

Their story, though not exactly common, is becoming more familiar in a state—and country—that has been hammered by heroin and opioid abuse. In New Jersey in 2014, nearly 30,000 people entered treatment programs for the drug. In 2015, at least 150 New Brunswick residents did the same, the sixth-most among Middlesex County municipalities.

And, as New Brunswick officials have said, homeless people like to come here. The city has an everyday soup kitchen, emergency shelters when it gets too cold and any number of charity groups and social-services agencies.

But no matter how many times similar tales unfold, the story of Chelline and Rick remains troubling, if not heartbreaking.

“In a couple months, we went from having good money to literally nothing,” Chelline says. “I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m sick of this lifestyle. I just want to be with my son.”

The People Behind the Drug

After a good day, Chelline and Rick like to buy ice cream, a few Butterfingers and a pack of Newports. Sometimes, if they’re feeling wild, they’ll throw down enough cash for a cheap hotel room.

“We spoil each other at night,” Rick says.

Even though they’re addicted to heroin, after all, they’re still people.

Chelline is a former high-school cheerleader. She also danced, played softball and did gymnastics. Her blonde hair and tan face resemble that of the suburban goodie-two-shoes she once was.

Rick is thin and tall, with a coarse beard and scraggly dark-brown hair. His hands, which once performed electrical work, hold a sign soliciting money and wishing God’s blessings upon commuters.

They met in third grade in Milltown, their hometown. For years after, they were close friends. They graduated Spotswood High School together in the Class of 2001.

They were normal kids from seemingly normal families.

Chelline was eventually diagnosed with lupus. She got hooked on opioids after a doctor prescribed her painkillers. She tried to get off by using methadone, which slowly rotted her teeth, and similar come-down drugs.

She also got caught dealing crack and heroin at one point. She said she didn’t use then, but the charges got her locked up in a county cell for about a year.

Chelline’s fiancé left her in 2013, and she began using—hard. She ended up getting off the stuff at a facility called the New Hope Foundation in Marlboro.

Before long, she and Rick got together.

“He was working and making a lot of money. He also kept me in line,” she says. “One night I called him and said, ‘Listen, I really want to get high tonight,’ and he said, ‘OK. I’ll pick it up,’ and it took off from there.”

That was in July, when they had an apartment in East Brunswick. By December, it was clear that they’d soon be homeless.

They have dreams. Chelline wants to go to rehab, study cosmetology and get her son back. They both want to get a place of their own once again and start a family.

Sometimes they make those corny couples-only jokes, like a weird voice or face that only they understand. They laugh together.

And they get high together.

A Typical Day

Chelline and Rick sleep wherever they can. Most often, that’s a tent in the woods, in the bitter-cold New Brunswick winter.

“We wake up with frost on the blankets,” Chelline says, “but it’s better than nothing.”

In the morning, they inject heroin to ward off withdrawals. Their drug use, they say, isn’t about partying. They can’t let themselves face the nausea and general hell that comes with coming down.

They each did a bag of heroin when they woke up today. Around here, the small sacks typically cost $8 or $10. They can get three for $20 total.

Once the drug takes hold, they hit the streets and panhandle for money. Some days, like Mondays, are tougher than others. Fridays bring drunk weekenders who are either happy to give $5 or $10 or yell, pick fights and tell them to get jobs.

Some folks buy them meals. Pizza is the most popular gift.

“I feel like I’m gonna turn into a pizza,” Chelline says with a smile and a laugh.

But many passersby don’t even acknowledge them. They walk ahead, almost straining their necks to not glance at the drug addicts on the sidewalk.

What’s perhaps most painful for Chelline is when she encounters people they know. Just this afternoon, a ghost from their high school drove by and doled out a few cigarettes. Minutes before, some of Rick’s dad’s co-workers sped past.

Strangers, the couple believes, see them in their most simplified form: a pair of homeless drug addicts. Old faces see failures.

“They don’t know that I give a shit about my kid,” Chelline says.

A few times a day, they sneak off to some hidden alcove to get high. The process only takes a few minutes, and it doesn’t tend to leave them nodding out and unable to function, Chelline says.

Come the day’s end, they get dinner either at Elijah’s Promise, the city’s soup kitchen, or a local eatery.

Then they return to their tent, get high and gear up for another hard night.

To Get Clean

Monday is the day. That’s when Chelline plans to call a detox center or a rehab program.

“I was thinking Wednesday,” Rick says.

Specifics aside, they’re determined to set in motion the wheels to get clean next week.

But it’ll be hard, if only because they don’t have access to a phone to make the half-hour assessment call required by some clinics. Never mind the challenge of getting off heroin—and leaving each other for an unknown amount of time to reach that goal.

In a better future, they’re sober and employed. Chelline is with her boy. The couple has a place of its own. Along the way, Chelline’s family may help her with a place to stay or other kinds of support.

Rick and Chelline are young. They believe they can beat heroin.

And they know they can’t keep going on like this.

“I’m over this,” she says. “This was not part of the plan—ever.”

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

South Brunswick-Cranbury

Police Blotter

South Brunswick and Cranbury Police Blotter

August 9, 2017

Sponsored by Reilly's Collision Center in Monmouth Junction. Click here and scroll down for the latest updates and alerts from South Brunswick and Cranbury Police.

See the most recent messages from South Brunswick Twp Police Department, powered by Nixle.

Murphy’s Puerto Rico Relief Commission Looks to Connect Families to Resources

March 20, 2018

PERTH AMBOY - Stephanie Márquez-Villafañe, president of the student-based Puerto Rican action group Rutgers Unión Estudiantil Puertorriqueña, offers a sobering assessment of New Jersey’s Puerto Rican student community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the worst hurricane to hit the U.S. territory in recorded history.

"University students have ...

Murphy’s Puerto Rico Relief Commission Looks to Connect Families to Resources

March 20, 2018

PERTH AMBOY - Stephanie Márquez-Villafañe, president of the student-based Puerto Rican action group Rutgers Unión Estudiantil Puertorriqueña, offers a sobering assessment of New Jersey’s Puerto Rican student community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the worst hurricane to hit the U.S. territory in recorded history.

"University students have ...

Rutgers voices support for proposed state budget

NEW BRUNSWICK - Rutgers University officials have often been wary of the governor's annual budget message, wondering what type of budget cuts the university may sustain and how it would potentially impact tuition and the overall quality of education.

This budget message, delivered March 13, appears to be a sigh of relief.

Pete McDonough, Vice President of External Affairs at ...

Middlesex Democrats Endorse Menendez, Pallone, Watson Coleman, Rios and Narra

METUCHEN - The Middlesex County Democratic Organization today endorsed Robert Menendez for Senate, Representatives Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ-6) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12), Freeholder Director Ronald Rios and Freeholder Shanti Narra for the Board of Chosen Freeholders.  Over 300 committee people came out to participate in the convention. 

“From Washington to New ...

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (Random House, 1965)


In Cold Blood is, quite simply, the grand-daddy of true crime writing, dubbed by Capote, himself, as the first non-fiction novel (although Norman Mailer argued the point when he published The Executioner's Song in 1979.) The conditions under which I read In Cold Blood for the first time were pretty weird, which was another ...

Ian Hockley Visits New Jersey to Introduce Program to Empower Youth

This week I am taking a departure from book reviewing to share an important program that has been introduced to New Jersey this week by Mr. Ian Hockley, founder of the Dylan's Wings of Change Foundation. On December 14, 2012, Hockley's five year old son, an autistic child named Dylan, was gunned down in his classroom in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Dylan, a shy and adorable ...

Rep. Watson Coleman Urges Support for Students Participating in Protests: Letter to Local School Officials Asks for Encouragement Rather Than Punishment

March 20, 2018

EWING, NJ – Today, Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) sent letters to principals and other school administrators in New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District urging support and encouragement for students who engage in protests and demonstrations for gun violence prevention amid reports that some New Jersey schools had suspended or otherwise punished students for their ...

ECSNJ Partnership with Rutgers Behavioral Health Helps Students Manage Life’s Challenges

PISCATAWAY – A collaboration with Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care is providing more behavioral and emotional support for students attending two Educational Services Commission of New Jersey (ESCNJ) schools.

Appearing on ESCNJ’s Better Together podcast, Assistant Superintendent Gary Molenaar said Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care “is a recognized ...


WASHINGTON, D.C., March 16, 2018 – Despite her rhetoric, U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-12, failed Wednesday to deliver on her promise to make schools safer for our children.

The two-term congressperson was one of only 10 representatives that voted “nay” Wednesday afternoon on the STOP School Violence Act of 2018.

The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on a ...