NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Chelline and Rick were robbed at knife point around 8:30 a.m. on a weekday morning.
It happened 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 told TAPinto New Brunswick as Rick asked 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.”
The attack was the first time anything that serious had happened to the couple — besides their shared heroin addiction.
Their addiction 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 that 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.
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.”