There is a picture in the Hartford Courant of Mark Jenkins talking with police officers looking as forlorn as I have ever seen him. They stand next to yellow tape sectioning off an area of woods just off Park Terrace where down a small ravine a man has been found dead. The paper describes the crime scene as a homeless encampment but it is little more than a small clearing with a dirty mattress, a blanket over some branches as a tarpaulin and a hollowed out log. Mark is the leader of the Hartford Harm Reduction Coalition. A former user, who went to rehab himself seventeen times, with the help of friends he found his way, and now has dedicated his life to harm reduction, which he describes as set of principles that recognizes the humanity of users and works to get them help or keep them safe until they are at a place in their lives where they are ready to stop using.
A couple months back, I got dispatched to this same place for an overdose. Mark and two members of his organization, Jose and Bryan, were already there. They had been on their way to work on the construction of their new walk-in center when they were flagged down. They found a man cold and not breathing on the broken winter branches and mat of old heroin bags. They gave him naloxone and by my arrival, the man was breathing again. He was just starting to rouse and was combative in his haze. They helped us carry him up to our stretcher. He was lucky someone has seen him and that Mark and his crew were driving by. In the hospital the man’s core temperature was 90 degrees.
Some days when I am working, I stop by the site. A few weeks ago, after we’d pulled to the side of the road, I looked down the small ravine and saw a solitary man there. From my vantage, I saw he had his arm outstretched and was injecting himself. In the summertime the clearing is completely hidden by greenery, but in winter, it is all grey and naked trees. The man in jeans and a black shirt nevertheless blended in, as if in this same season, he were stripped himself of much of what he once was. I told my partner to drive on.
I don’t know if the dead man is the same man I took to the hospital or the man I saw injecting himself in the cold grayness or someone else. I do know that he is not the first to die in those woods.
123 Americans died of overdoses in Hartford in 2019. 17 have already died in 2020.
In Mark’s face you can see the burden of this war he is fighting against stigma, against convention and bureaucracy, against death, against time.