Inside a Crack House

By Jeff Deeney 09/27/11

Ordered to rescue a trapped four-year-old boy, a social worker raids a crumbling crack house in a neighborhood where he himself once regularly copped.

The house in Northeast Philadelphia where our writer made an emergency call. Jeff Deeney

Every big-city social worker in the addiction field knows that Monday mornings are the most hectic. After a couple days away from your desk you’re likely to return to a voicemail box jammed with frantic messages from clients and their families. Mondays are the day you find out that a client got murdered while hustling on a dangerous corner at 3 am on Saturday night. Or a client relapsed on PCP at a party with his friends and wound up back in the psych unit. Or a client tried to cop a bag of heroin, got locked up on a possession charge and can’t make bail. Mondays are the days when you have to help your struggling clients put out all the fires they started over the weekend and help them figure out ways to undo the damage.

On this particular Monday morning the voice on the other end of the phone identified herself as a high-ranking official at the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Why was she calling me, I wondered? I’m just a rank-and-file, trench-level social worker. She said she had a last-minute addition for my caseload: a four-year-old child belonging to a mentally ill, addicted mother, who was reportedly living in a public housing unit that had been converted to a crack house. She wanted me to go and rescue him. Immediately! This was 911 time, a high-risk case; there was no time to waste. No one wants to be responsible for the death of a four-year-old child. Imagine how that would play on Eyewitness News.

The living room carpet was littered with used condoms, a sign that women had been tricking for drug money. Upstairs, the toilet was overflowing with shit.

I’ve certainly heard much crazier war stories from longtime vets in my profession. Given the large percentage of  our clients who are addicted to drugs, going into crack houses is hardly unheard of in the social work field. But carrying out this specific mission held special considerations for me—I’m also a recovering drug addict, who used to buy drugs in the same neighborhood I was now speeding off to.

I’ve been asked time and again: How can you do this work? How can you spend days on end—as I have over many years—working on corners where hand-to-hand drug buys are happening right under your nose? Don’t you ever get tempted, triggered?

The answer is no. I’ve never once had the impulse to cop while working in the neighborhoods. And the reason is quite simple: Sobriety gives me a clear set of eyes through which I can keenly witness how ugly end-stage drug addiction is. There’s no romance in an arm lined with festering abscesses, the smell of someone who's been sleeping in abandoned houses for weeks on end, or the desperate, battered look of an addicted prostitute who just got the shit kicked out of her by a psycho John. Social workers see these things routinely; addicts, at least when they're getting high, tend to overlook them.

When you’re in the midst of a run, zooming around North Philly in a car full of manic dopefiends, parachuting onto one drug corner after the next to cop bags, looking over your shoulder for the Narcotics Unit like you’re behind enemy lines on some kind of Navy Seal strike mission, the adrenaline itself has an intoxicating effect. Many addicts struggle to recover because they can’t keep away from the alluring high drama of drug corner chaos.

But the same corner looks different at 9 am on Monday morning, in sobriety. When I go to the corner in the morning for work I see the damage of addiction and ruined lives, not last night’s hype about the bomb bag they just started selling two blocks down. And sometimes the reality of addiction damage can be so cold and harsh it’s hard to swallow—like when a mentally ill woman suffering a psychotic break drags her four-year-old son into the center of all this insanity.

That morning, two women from the housing authority met me at the unit—a scatter-site placement in an ailing row home on a decaying block in lower Northeast Philadelphia that had become known for crack-trafficking and prostitution. They unlocked the door with their finger tips, like it was covered with deadly germs and they didn’t want to touch it. They pushed the door open but wouldn’t follow me in. "Who knows what’s in there?" they said.

I knew what would be in there. It was a crack house, what else could be in there? The living room carpet was littered with used condoms, a sign that women had been tricking here for drug money.   Upstairs, the toilet was overflowing with shit that had run all over the floor because the water got shut off, but they kept using it anyway. The place looked like it had been tossed; drawers were flung open and clothes had been thrown everywhere. I suspected robbery but it turned out later the DEA had recently raided the place. There were spoons still crusted with dried coke and blackened glass stems everywhere. Needless to say, the scene didn’t tempt me to pick one up and hit it for old time’s sake.

I don’t share these details in the spirit of moral judgment—it’s just the reality of what a crackhouse looks like in the clear light of day after the party’s over and everyone’s run from the Feds. Years ago, I would have had no qualms getting high here myself.

The saddest part of the whole scene for me was reflecting on another fact that I’ve confronted many times as a social worker, which is that some crackhouses just weren’t intended to happen. Most people imagine a crackhouse as an abandoned property commandeered by dealers, who set up an organized drug dispensation system, including security and queues where addicts fall in line, waiting their turn to buy some rocks. These types of crackhouses do predominate, but many others are of a different variety.

Some crackhouses are “conversions” that start with an addicted single mom. She’s behind on her rent, and is having trouble supporting her habit. She invites some friends over—if they pool their money, maybe they can get a better bulk deal on coke. They bring a coke dealer in, and he starts to supply the addicts with drugs. The dealer brings some other users over, and starts selling to them, too. Someone suggests that the women start tricking in order to keep the drug money coming in.

Now non-addict Johns are coming in and out, looking for sex. At this point, the lease-holding single mom has lost control of her property and a full-fledged crackhouse is operating. She can’t get it under control, because the dealer either strong-arms her into keeping it going, or bribes her with drugs. It all comes crashing down when the cops get called, and everyone except mom runs off. It’s around this time a social worker gets called in to help clean up the mess.

There was a lot of mess to clean up at the house I went to that Monday morning, but the initial crisis was over. The four-year-old boy wasn’t there. I later found out he had been down South with his dad in Atlanta, and had been spared most of the damage. And I walked away feeling pretty damned good about being clean and sober.

Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker and a writer who is in recovery. This is his first article for The Fix.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.