For this Jungle resident, methadone is the 'shield that I need'
Kevin Boggs moved to Seattle to pursue his glass blowing dreams, but today he stands in line at a methadone clinic.
It’s a gray building on Airport Way South, which matches the mood inside.
Patients may chat while they wait, but it’s forbidden to talk about life before treatment – about the bad decisions that brought them here.
A door opens and Boggs steps up to the counter. Sergio Rivera, a registered nurse, makes eye contact. Is Boggs high? Intoxicated? His patient must be in the clear, because Rivera hands over a small plastic cup of hot pink liquid – Boggs’ dose of methadone.
Boggs swallows the dose in front of Rivera and washes it down with some water. According to Boggs, it tastes nasty.
It was after a visit like this – they all go like this – that Boggs left the methadone clinic and spotted people climbing a slope into a wooded area under Interstate 5.
It was a hot day. Boggs followed the people into the shade of a wooded area and sat down, resting his back against one of the huge, concrete pylons that holds up the freeway.
“Ten seconds later I got, ‘Hey man, get up. You can’t be here, get the hell out of there. Leave now,’” Boggs recalled.
He waved off the affront. But seconds later another man approached. He said that if Boggs wanted a problem, he’d get one.
Boggs had stumbled into a homeless camp known as the Jungle.
“As offensive as that was personally, I’m like, ‘This is it. This is my house. This is my place. I’ve got to come here right now,’” Boggs said.
Heroin drove him to the streets, first to Lake City, where his tent was repeatedly ransacked. It was also a 45-minute bus ride to the methadone clinic he’d been assigned.
Boggs moved into the Jungle in December. At first, the people living there didn’t trust him. But he softened up the leader of the camp he wanted to join, a man known as O.G.
Bags of cereal delivered every few days got him into O.G.’s good books and, when a shooting in January created vacancies, Boggs was welcomed into the fold. His bright orange tent now sits at the end of a row.
“You need a community to survive in a hostile environment, you cannot do it alone,” he said. “This is my not alone.”
It helps, too, that the methadone clinic is a stone’s throw from where he now lives. The clinic is run by Evergreen Treatment Services, one of three methadone clinics in Seattle. (The others are on Aurora Avenue North near Shoreline and on Capitol Hill.)
There are often wait lists for the methadone programs so, when you get into one, location isn’t really something you can negotiate.
But it makes a difference. Boggs has to physically show up at the clinic six days a week to get his treatment, that’s part of the deal when you’re on medication that’s so highly regulated.
Since starting methadone, Boggs got work as a welder in Redmond.
“Methadone basically gives any of us who stay on it the stability to actually live normal lives, go and get jobs without rushing out to obtain heroin every day,” Boggs said.
About 40 percent of the patients at the clinic on Airport Way are homeless.
Boggs is lucky, in a sense. Accessing methadone is harder now that the gap between heroin addiction and available treatment is growing.
Caleb Banta-Green is on the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Task Force. He said the only way to fight the heroin epidemic is to make treatment as available as the drug.
The county task force wants more doctors to prescribe buprenorphine, an opiate addiction treatment drug that’s less regulated than methadone.
Family doctors may prescribe buprenorphine to a limited number of patients. But many providers don’t want to treat such a challenging population.
“It needs to be a normal thing that all primary care doctors do,” Banta-Green said.
But there's still stigma, as Boggs learned when he told his mom he was clean. She was thrilled, but when she learned he was taking methadone, she was crushed.
“That was really disappointing when my mom said, ‘Oh, I thought you were sober, and now here I am disappointed for you.’ Luckily she was intelligent enough that I could convince her and talk to her and make her understand,” Boggs said.
He told her that if you take opiates for long enough, the drugs literally change your brain chemistry.
The things that used to make you feel good – food, water, love – take a backseat to the need for your brain’s receptors to encounter opiates.
Medications like methadone and buprenorphine physically stabilize addicts so they can function normally. Some people compare it to a diabetic taking insulin.
“It’s like my shield that I need,” Boggs said. “I’m not afraid to be without it, but I know what would happen.”
Join a community conversation about the Jungle at Seattle Public Library on Friday, June 3. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; discussion begins at 7:00 p.m.