July 31, 2017

Josh Copeland never imagined that he'd be homeless and addicted to heroin. But in his early twenties, he found himself living under a bridge in Paterson off of Route 80, panhandling for money to support his growing heroin habit.

His downward spiral had started off slowly enough before dramatically plunging.

Josh grew up in Ramsey--a suburb twelve miles north of Paterson, but a world away. With a mother who struggled with drug addiction and an absentee father, Josh was raised by his grandmother. After high school, he attended Bergen Community College for two years, but his depression made it hard for him to give school his full attention, and his grades were not ideal.

At the age of 22, Josh was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). To help him with the pain, Josh's doctor prescribed him painkillers. Josh soon found himself addicted to the pills and, like with so many people, the pills soon became his whole life. Manipulating his doctors and "doctor shopping" allowed the pills to keep coming, but soon they weren't enough.

Josh realized he could sell his painkillers and use the money to buy heroin, which is cheaper. Within six months of starting to take painkillers, Josh lost everything. He had sold all of his possessions and used the money to buy more heroin. And because of his MS and his addiction to opioids, Josh was unemployable. Furthermore, his grandmother had died and he had no place to live; he had alienated everyone in his life, so he wasn't able to stay at anyone's home. Josh said, "By that time, I'd screwed over anyone who'd ever cared about me."

Josh spent the next five years of his life homeless and addicted to heroin. To survive during the brutally cold winters, he often went to the hospital emergency room just to get out of the cold. He also found himself in and out of jail, and at one point, he was incarcerated for 45 days for criminal mischief. Josh said, "At some point, all hope was lost. I wasn't employable, I had no formal education, and I didn't know what to do."

Josh was warned by a judge that the next time he got into trouble, he could be sentenced to 90 days in jail. That scared Josh, who realized he'd be spending all of the summer and fall in jail, just to be back out on the streets again in the freezing winter. Josh went to Bergen Regional Medical Center in Paramus for five months, where he detoxed and also learned about affordable and supportive housing opportunities. He thanked his lucky stars when an apartment opened up at NJCDC's Spruce Terrace Apartments, which are home to eight formerly homeless individuals with disabilities. Spruce Terrace is staffed by a full-time Program Director, a Wellness and Recovery Coordinator, and two part-time consultants --a certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor and a Registered Nurse--thanks to funding from New Jersey's Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, as well as housing vouchers which NJCDC administers in conjunction with the Passaic County Department of Human Services.

Josh's apartment overlooks the bridge he used to live under, which reminds him of how far he has come. Nearly three years after moving there--and with just over four years of sobriety under his belt-- Josh is set to graduate from Passaic County Community College with an Associate's Degree in English. Josh currently has a 3.9 GPA and received three scholarships this past school year. He hopes to next attend a four-year university.

In addition to focusing on his education, Josh works as a recovery coach through the Opioid Overdose Recovery Program that was launched by Eva's Village. The recovery coaches are called when patients have been reversed from opioid overdoses at St. Joseph's Hospital in Paterson, and they offer support and guidance to these patients, both at their bedsides and for at least 12 weeks after discharge. Having been in recovery themselves, the coaches are in a unique position to truly connect with these patients.

Reflecting on the past few years, Josh said, "For the first time in my life, I'm really happy and I don't want to change anything. I used to be restless, irritable, and discontent, but now I'm really happy with my education, I have food in the fridge and a job I like. I have friends and extended family...Life is really great. And none of this would have been possible without NJCDC."

Just last week, Josh attended the New Jersey Congressional Reception in Washington, D.C., where he joined more than 450 New Jersey residents--including other NJCDC housing residents and NJCDC staff--to advocate for affordable housing and to express their opposition to proposed housing cuts.

Addressing the large crowd, which included U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker and Congressman Bill Pascrell, he said, "People who hear my story don't understand how a guy who lived under a bridge can now, with a roof over his head, be able to take care of himself and succeed, and give back to the community he lives in. The same community I stole from, where I was a blemish...It's all because I don't have to worry about having a roof over my head. Now I can help better myself and my community. My success has only been possible because of NJCDC, and my story can be replicated." Click here to watch Josh's speech.

Thanks to funding from the New Jersey Commission on National and Community Service (AmeriCorps), NJCDC is developing a plan to determine how the AmeriCorps program can help address the opioid epidemic in Paterson. In the meantime, we hope stories like Josh's will both discourage people from experimenting with drugs, and offer hope to those who aspire to recovery.

Support Our Work!
We at NJCDC are keenly aware of the challenging economic times. 93 cents of every dollar donated to NJCDC goes directly to programs which help families, teens, children and people with disabilities.