Getting Clean in Dirt City: After seeing a high school classmate in an article about homeless heroin addicts, Stacy Peck felt a strong urge to make a difference.

by Kayla Sosa | Photography by Two Eagles Marcus

It was February, in the dead of winter. Tyler Trowbridge was homeless, living on 28th Street, his hands turning purple from frostbite. When the reporter asked Trowbridge if he thought he would die on the streets, he said, “Yeah, I do. I love life, but I probably will die out here.”

“The part that really got me was, not so much that he was hooked on heroin, but just the fact that he had no one.” Peck expressed. “He had not one person that he could call to get out of the winter conditions. It just broke my heart.”

Peck posted on Facebook about the article, alerting her high school friends that Trowbridge was a former classmate of theirs.

“And right away, we were all just kind of scheming, about how could we help him,” Peck said. “I just could not stand the thought that the article was out and he was just still out there.”

Along with another former classmate, Peck set up a GoFundMe page which laid out what Trowbridge would need and disclosed that she would find someone to manage the money for him. Treatment and counseling were among the needs on the list. She contacted a drop-in center that she thought Trowbridge might be at the following Monday, and told the receptionist to tell him she would be meeting
him there.

“My intent at that time was to tell him about the GoFundMe, see who could manage it for him, and just to try to educate myself on the resources that were around town so that we could get him help and get him off the streets,” Peck said. “I went there and started talking to him and realized how bad off he was.”

Peck booked Trowbridge into a treatment center and found him temporary shelter at a motel. The next day, he was already starting his recovery. Peck said at first, Trowbridge was skeptical — why would some random girl from high school want to help him out?

In the beginning, Peck received emails from people saying that she shouldn’t help Trowbridge.

“Especially in the first couple months of helping him, I got a lot of emails and calls and texts where people were saying, ‘Don’t let him into your home, he’s going to rob you, be careful, you don’t know what addicts are capable of,’” she recalled.

Trowbridge, 34, was a “master panhandler” and would make hundreds of dollars just to spend on drugs. He was digging himself into a deeper pit, having done some type of drug every day since he was a teenager.

“I was one of the worst of the worst,” Trowbridge said. “I was a really bad heroin and cocaine addict, I’d been doing it for over ten years and never been clean.
I never thought I could ever get clean.”

In the first week of treatment, Trowbridge had one slip up where he used again, but he quickly got back on track and is now eight months sober.

“He thought for sure I was going to ditch him,” Peck said. “I said, ‘We’re not giving up all this hard work we’ve already put in, let’s just keep going.’”

And so they did. Now, Peck and Trowbridge, along with Wendy Botts, are looking at the bigger picture of helping addicts in the area. Through Trowbridge’s recovery, many people volunteered to spend time with him and in that, he ended up building his own support system. This concept inspired the three to think bigger and see how they could create that for other people looking to recover from addiction. That is what Dirt City Sanctuary will be.

“What if we recreate what we did for (Tyler) on this big scale, and just give people an option to recover in a totally different way,” Peck said. “Because right now, the recovery community is a lot of tough love…and that doesn’t work for a lot of people.”

Trowbridge can attest to the success of the approach.

“How we approached my recovery just made sense for a lot of different reasons,” Trowbridge said.
“And after seeing the success, that someone like me could turn it around, we just wanted to replicate it on a bigger scale.”

The group is working with an architect to draw up plans on the first Dirt City Sanctuary campus, on which they plan to break ground in the spring of 2019.

Botts got involved with Dirt City because she was a friend of Peck’s and wanted to make a difference in the recovery community after her son Jordan died of a Fentanyl overdose last year. She said Jordan suffered from mental health issues and was lucky to have a support system. He also had a passion for homeless people after volunteering at Degage for many years. Botts wants to continue helping those two communities through Dirt City Sanctuary, and said she hopes Jordan would be proud of her.

“I hope to raise awareness about the homeless population and educate people about who’s homeless and why,” Botts said. “I think a lot of people have preconceived notions of how, what, why and who is homeless. Most Americans are only one major catastrophe away from homelessness.”

Botts said she hopes to change the way our society views these communities of people dealing with tough circumstances in their lives.

“A lot of people can be harsh on their views of heroin,” Botts said. “But once you start to break it down for them that 86 percent of heroin users were prescribed [opioids] by a doctor and that’s what led to their addiction, then all of a sudden they change their tune.”

With Dirt City, there’s hope that the change can start here in West Michigan.

“We hope that it can be replicated across the country and that we can change the conversation about homelessness, but also substance abuse disorder,” Botts said.

Show your support for Dirt City by attending their next event: Purple Backpack Project from 1-4 p.m Nov. 17 at Heartside Park, 301 Ionia Ave SW. Backpacks filled with essential winter supplies will be given out to the homeless people in Grand Rapids. A hot meal will be provided by Amore Trattoria Italiana and haircuts and hot shaves provided by Salon Re. To learm more, visit dirtcitysanctuary.org

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