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Stephen Stirling's Herointown

By Keri Blakinger 01/27/16

Stephen Stirling wondered what it would be like if all of New Jersey's heroin addicts lived in a single town. With a population of 128,000, it would be the fourth largest city in the Garden State.

via Anna Vignet, for NJ Advance Media

It was about a year ago that Stephen Stirling dreamed up a place called Herointown. 

If it sounds like a fictional locale, that’s because it is—sort of. Last month, Stirling—a reporter with New Jersey Advance Media’s Newark Star-Ledger—tackled heroin coverage in a new light. He imagined the Garden State’s heroin users as residents of a single town and he teamed up with two other reporters to explore what that town would look like and who would live there. He pored through data to come up with a population estimate for the semi-fictional city: 128,000. If Herointown were a single place, it would be the fourth-largest city in New Jersey. 

Laced with interactive graphics, charts, personal stories, and loads of data, the final result of Stirling’s labor of love is both a work of art and a masterful piece of journalism. 

This month, The Fix sat down with Stirling to find out more about what went into the making of Herointown. 

Stephen Sterling

So first of all, how did you end up writing this story—is this something that had a personal connection for you?

I was interested in it for a while—there’s been a lot of great coverage of this issue around the country and in New Jersey, in particular … but it didn’t seem like it was really resonating, which was surprising because the per capita deaths were surpassing most other regions.

It was crystallized for me when I went to rehab for alcoholism in 2014. I went to a place out-of-state but I was so surprised that I was surrounded by people who were 20 to 25. I was one of a handful over the age of 30 and one of maybe five or six in a 100-bed facility not there for opiates. And so many of these kids were from Jersey and these kids were telling incredible, incredible stories. So when I came back, I started reporting on heroin in July 2014, and this project sort of came about in the new year. 

How’d you go about getting started on this project in particular?

When I published one of my first stories about heroin, I put out a Google form that asked for basic demographics and gave people a blank slate and said, "Tell me your story" and gave the option to provide contact info. We got more than 500 responses and some of them were more than 2,000 words. We had more than 200 towns represented. 

How many towns are there in the state? 

There’s 565 total. 

Of those who responded, I’d say about 80% left their contact information.

In the beginning, it was like, “Let’s see what we get here.” I had the idea that I wanted to work on something longer term but didn’t know what it would be yet. So by the start of 2015, I’d done a couple more stories and had started to meet sources and had a good handle on it. We sort of all got together in a room and by then I’d gotten approval to work on a long-term project. So it was sort of brainstorming—how do we not make this every other heroin story we’ve done—and we got the idea to create a semi-fictional city around this population. I’d collected enough data at that point where I felt like I could come up with a figure for the population and it was like, “What can we do with that number?” Even until it published I didn’t know if it was going to work or if it would resonate with anybody. Thankfully, it seems like it did.

What’s the feedback been like so far?

I’ve never gotten this much feedback for a story I’ve done in my entire career. I’ve gotten hundreds of emails from people, including people in active addiction who it struck a chord with. And I’ve gotten emails from parents who have lost their kids. We have the gravestones as part of the project. It isn’t a complete list, we know that. Not all overdoses are reported. I’ve had parents contact me and ask can we add their kid. Two asked if it could be taken off.

And did you?

Of course. 

One of the parts of this project that’s both shocking and moving is that list of names, the overdose deaths. How did you get that data—and for every county?

It was surprisingly easy. Vital records in New Jersey are public records. I had developed a pretty good relationship with the medical examiner at that point and it’s a statewide agency. I don’t know that they would do it again but I put in a [FOIL] request and they just handed the names to me.

Do you think there could be any positive change from this—like has there been talk of any legislative action?

There may be positive legislative action that takes place because of this, but it’s tough because the story ran in late December before the legislative session ended.

If there is action, what would you like to see changed?

Obviously something isn’t working because people can’t get the help that they need. New Jersey doesn’t have enough treatment beds, which is sort of the central problem of all this. In fact, New Jersey is actually losing beds.

Why is that?

The primary reason is because of the state Medicaid reimbursement rate, which is $68 a day for inpatient residential. So, for example, John Brooks Recovery Center in Atlantic City has threatened to close. Quite a few treatment centers in New Jersey have been taken over by other groups and are going commercial-only. They’re no longer doing state-subsidized beds.

But typically the majority of people in treatment are Medicaid patients—state-subsidized beds—right?

Yep, that’s right. So for the people who need treatment the most, there will be fewer options.

You mention Atlantic City—are there places that are the epicenter of this?

Per capita, yeah. A lot of the shore communities in particular—Ocean County, Monmouth, Cape May—and then the southwestern portion of the state and Middlesex County is up there as well. I think Cape May County has the highest in terms of deaths.

Do higher death rates correlate to higher drug use rates? 

It seems to from every indication that I have. The way I estimated the using population I can’t break it down by county. But anecdotes suggest it’s a good correlation as well.

New Jersey has always had a reputation as a heroin-drenched state. Is it actually worse here than other places? 

I think the problem in New Jersey has been understated. When the CDC came out with the national death rate earlier in the year New Jersey’s was more than three times higher than that. Unfortunately, I think that one of the reasons New Jersey gets dusted over in the conversation is that politically we don’t carry much weight. This is presidential primary season and our primary season means nothing. I’ve seen New Hampshire getting a lot of attention and I know things there are terrible but I wouldn’t say it’s any worse than they are here.

Why do you think there’s so much heroin in New Jersey?

It’s a combination of a lot of factors. It’s one of the first ports of call for heroin in general—Philly, Newark, New York City. It’s extremely pure as a result. The FBI released data that it’s 57% pure—and that’s up from 3-5%  in the '80s. Prices remain pretty low and it doesn’t get stepped on as much. 

The story mentions some data about increases in the heroin-addicted population—can you pinpoint a timeframe as to when it really took off?

It seems like around the 2008 to 2010 area there was a definite upturn. Right around that area is when you start to see the exponential spike in deaths, in the past five or six years.

Why is that?

There’s increasing amounts of fentanyl found in the heroin and anytime you see that enter the stream, deaths increase like crazy because fentanyl can be manufactured pretty easily. 

So what’s the solution? What would help reduce the addicted population on a large scale?      

You know, it seems like on any institutional level somebody is going to have to throw some money at it from somewhere. There’s been a lot of legislation—I think there were 21 bills in the past year that have to do with this, but so few of them have to do with any monetary thing. The other hope is that maybe the general public comes around to the fact that this a prevalent problem that’s affecting people all around them. Surprisingly there’s still a lot of people willing to stick their head in the sand about this. If family members and people in recovery and people addicted can gain more sense that they’re not alone ... I think that was one of my goals with this. I’d like to see some kind of groundswell come out of this and maybe people will get together at a community level and help one another because it so often seems like depending on politicians to do anything is a fool’s game now.

In the course of your research you probably found some data and stories that stood out—what was the most shocking takeaway from all this?

It was the thinking about the data I’d come up with when I came up with the population number and I understood that was low. 

I think about applying myself to that. What if everybody who was addicted in New Jersey had the same family framework around me [in terms of] how many people I affected with my addiction? I think that’s what gets me, that there are people willing to bury their heads in the sand on this, even with that. So few people that I come across don’t have some connection to it in their lives.

It’s just crazy how far that goes with heroin these days in New Jersey.

Keri Blakinger is a writer and prison-reform activist living near New York City. A writer for The New York Daily News, she has also been published in The Washington Post, Salon, and Quartz.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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