We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at womenofcincy.org/housing.
Interview by Teri Heist. Photography by Stacy Wegley.
Note that this article contains some strong language and mature content. Also note in the interest of full disclosure that Tracy Brumfield’s nonprofit, RISE, is a client of Women of Cincy’s sister company, Notice.
“Never underestimate the power of the universe to teach you a fuckin‘ lesson when you think you have your life on lockdown.”
Do you ever drive past the homeless, standing on the corner with a “Homeless. Please Help.” sign and wonder how that person got there? Maybe it’s a scam, and their pockets are full of money. Or do you think you already have the answers: bad choices, lazy people, stupid behavior? You’re not like them, of course. You have a good family. You would never do drugs, at least not the addicting kind. You are smarter than that. And you’re great at your job. You’re stable, successful. Not stupid. Not lazy.
Neither was Tracy.
But there she was, one cold December night in 2014, just down the road from Oakley, where she had lived for years in the “sweetest apartment ever.” You know that corner near Crossroads Church? She chose that spot because she felt safe. It was familiar. So, with a sign in her hand, she stepped out onto the curb and into an experience she had never imagined. And she cried.
Tracy Brumfield is kind of famous. Some would even say she’s a picture of success. Out of dozens of applicants, she was one of only two chosen in 2017 to be a People’s Liberty Haile Fellow. Her idea was so powerful, and she was so committed to it, that she was awarded $100,000 and given one year to make it happen.
Yeah. $100,000 to create and produce RISE = Reenter Into Society Empowered, a newspaper that would be full of the connections, resources, and how-to’s to help people coming out of jail have a better chance of staying out of jail. Or off heroin. Or off the streets.
You see, there isn’t some kiosk or help desk at the Hamilton County jail with a volunteer saying, “How may we help you? Looking for legal help? Right this way.” Or, “How about an affordable room close to a job that’s just calling your name? Here’s the number – tell them I sent you.” “Need a referral to an affordable doctor, or maybe a support group to help you overcome an addiction that thousands are succumbing to every day? I know just the place, and here’s a few bucks to get you in the door while you’re waiting for the job to come through.”
Nope. It doesn’t work like that, and it didn’t for Tracy. Coming out of jail after six months, with a felony for heroin possession (and then some), she was clean. And for someone like Tracy – from a good family, good education, good jobs – surely this was the wakeup call and the opportunity to turn it all around.
And it was. But it wasn’t enough. Because opiates and heroin can take down the best of us. If you’ve never been addicted, you can’t imagine it. The addiction was quiet for the moment, but she had no doubt it was still there. And when you’re in jail for six months, you lose your job. And you lose your apartment – your beautiful, affordable apartment on Oakley Square. Gone.
Walking out of prison with a felony, no job, and without the home you’ve known for years is a deep pit. She had two pieces of fortune: Faith, the love of her life was there for her, and a sister who was willing to give her a place to stay.
Most of her family had retreated at the first sign of her drug addiction. Others tried harder, but even they eventually put some distance between themselves and Tracy. They had believed in her before, but did her words mean anything anymore? Tracy knew this, so she didn’t even ask. These were problems of her making.
Tracy had started on opiates at age 23, senior year of college. It was a simple prescription to manage her migraines. With opiates, the longer you take them, the more you need.
Tracy left college after getting sick during finals, and life started getting harder, maybe a little lonelier. She doesn’t remember the first time she took a pill, not for the migraine pain, but for something else. But slowly, and without much notice to Tracy or anyone else, it became normal. Normal to take more than she needed for the pain. Opiates were everywhere then – just what the doctor ordered. But doctors didn’t know the truth then, either. Or maybe they did. Either way, it was easy to get. So she did. It made her feel like she thought everyone else felt: normal, comfortable in her skin.
She was addicted, full-blown, but somehow back then Tracy remained “functional.” Even with a daily addiction, she maintained her job, her friends, her family, her lifestyle. Some were catching on though – her partner, her family. Her doctor never did, and it took a call from her partner to get the prescription writing to stop.
Eventually, the pills became harder to get. The disease, and that is what Tracy knows it to be, kept knockin‘.
And now her life did start to fall apart. Now she couldn’t keep a job for long. She tried treatment for the opiates and learned about heroin. Pills were expensive, and Tracy learned that, for way less money, snorting heroin could get you just as high. And then she learned that shooting up was even cheaper, and much quicker. Who ever thinks that they could stick a needle in her arm? Tracy didn’t, either, but by then it was a simple cost-benefit calculation. Her addiction became a “mind fuck.”
She was shooting up in her car when the cops came by. Into the court system she went. She had two pieces of fortune: Faith, the love of her life was there for her, and a sister who was willing to give her a place to stay.
She wanted with everything she had to stay clean. She was smart – college-educated. The one in high school who was the responsible one, the one who drove the drunk kids around because she was sober. She had years of good paying jobs that she loved. And she had that apartment, that sweet apartment that was always there for her.
But addiction was causing her to lose all of that. She relapsed into an active addiction that soon had her kicked out of the one-room apartment she was sharing with her sister. The next step was moving in with Faith, living with Faith’s grandma. But with their addictions, they soon had to leave there, too.
Addicted, jobless, and homeless, she had her car and she had Faith. Well, she also had herself. She hadn’t lost that. She was strong enough to get over her pride to do what she could to take care of Faith.
Every time she stood on that corner, she cried. And as she tells it, standing on that corner never, ever got easier. She never got used to it. She stood in her humiliation every single day.
But panhandling also brought her face-to-face with humanity – its presence and its absence. In the faces of people who drove by without a glance; in the eyes of the woman who gave her a sweater. Some snacks handed out a window. And she wondered about this. Why do some people have humanity and others don’t? Surely everyone sees that they’re just a few steps from this? Lose your job, and you lose your home. Take a pill for a medical condition and become ensnared in addiction. Humanity. We’re all the same. Doesn’t everyone believe “that for the grace of God go I?”
Tracy learned that no, not everyone believes in a universal common humanity. Some don’t think we’re all the same. A lucky break here, bad decision there – life’s a slippery slope – it’s the baby slide for some, but for others, it’s the 10-story twisted slide from hell. Still, some believe that you get what you deserve.
Two, three months of panhandling, living in their car, and with luck, a shelter stay every now and then. Fifty bucks was a good day, and it was supposed to pay for food, gas, everything. The car was their savior. It kept them off the streets.
It gave them a little bit of hope. And maybe the space for a little luck.
Tracy went to visit a friend where she had once worked. With a car, she could do that. The friend had stayed open to Tracy, even letting her and Faith do laundry and shower now and then. Tracy, in turn, had stayed open to her friend, sharing her homelessness and her struggles with addiction – something Tracy didn’t do with anyone. And then Tracy took another chance and talked to her old boss.
She didn’t ask, but he offered her a job. He knew what addiction was like – he had family members who had gone through it. Plus, Tracy had always been a great employee. The job didn’t pay much, and it wasn’t the job she loved before, but it was enough to make the panhandling stop.
She believes it was a mix of humanity, with people who could see themselves in her struggles, and luck, with having a boss in a position to simply hire her. No drug test or application needed. This was important, because Tracy and Faith were addicted, again.
But she never missed a day of work. They slept in the car on the company lot, cleaned up in the morning before anyone got there, and Tracy did her job. They tried to save a little money, because the next step was to find a place to live – somewhere that would rent to two people with felonies and evictions and a minimum wage job.
Luck snuck in again. Or maybe it was God – Tracy doesn’t discount that. And another bit of humanity. A new guy at a property management company promised them a unit – felonies and evictions didn’t matter, he said. Tracy and Faith had a hard time believing this, but, with an advance from her boss, they went to sign papers and deliver the deposit the next day. They were right about the good news being hard to believe: The new guy was wrong, and the landlord told them so. But he had this other place, newly renovated, and he was willing to give them a shot. But be late one time, and they were out of there.
And they moved in. After five cold, miserable months, they had a home. They committed to being clean. And they did it: four years this coming December. Humanity, luck, and transformation.
“I finally realized that there was a lesson in all of it and that holding onto the pain was not going to help anyone else, but sharing the lesson would.”
Congratulations to Tracy and Faith. Thanks for sharing your story.
A few words straight from Tracy:
Was being transparent about your situation critical to recovery?
Yeah, it’s a huge one for me. The abatement of this epidemic will begin when people can come out from under the veil of anonymity and share their story. To come out and talk about it beyond the walls of NA or AA and to share it with those who would benefit the most… The more we can humanize it and our journeys of recovery, the more that society can begin to really see it. We typically hear how someone has overdosed and died. We don’t hear a whole lot about those who have made it out the other side. But there are tons of stories out there, and I’m not unique by any means; it’s just the willingness to put yourself out there. It’s my personal choice, and I hope more do it.
What is your advice for families of people struggling with addiction or homelessness?
This is what I implore for families who have someone who has this disease, regardless of whether this person is homeless or not: Have boundaries with this person, whatever they may be – whether it’s that you don’t give them money, or that they can’t be in your house alone, whatever – but never cut that person off emotionally. Take the phone call. Go to doctor’s appointments with them. The response to addiction is so different [than with other diseases] because the stigma is that it is a choice. “It’s my choice to fuck up.”
It’s unfortunately stigmatized as someone who’s just a piece of shit. We’re called junkies. Junk is trash. “You’re trash on the street; you’re a drain on our resources; just fuckin‘ die.” This is what people think.
Who is an influential woman in your life?
Right now, the most influential woman in my life is Chris Bochenek with the Haile Foundation. She was my mentor for the People’s Liberty fellowship. She’s just got this level of humanity, and deep empathy and caring for our community. This woman has been such an inspiration to me because she could be removed from all of this; she could just write a check and do a lot of good, but she is just so entrenched in the community. It inspires me. Without her support, I don’t know that this evolution of our organization would be happening.
Joy Pierson is another influential woman in my life. [Editor’s note: Joy is also the mother of Women of Cincy feature Grace Cunningham.] She works for Hamilton County Planning & Development and volunteers in the community. I was volunteering at the Hamilton County jail running peer support. After doing that for a year, it occurred to me that I was working with only 16 women getting reentry help, but there are 1,400 fucking people in this jail. What do they get? What if we do a newspaper for them that had everything in it? All the resources, who to talk to, where to get help, where to go?
And Joy said, “I think you should do it. I think you should apply for the People’s Liberty grant.” In fact, Joy, who was supposed to just be reviewing it for me, fucking hit submit! She said, “Let go, let God, girl! It’s done!”
Tracy continues to help take the luck out of recovery and reentry with the newspaper “RISE = Reenter Into Society Empowered.” RISE is a newspaper that provides valuable resource information to currently incarcerated citizens to help them plan for re-entering our community. RISE is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. If you would like to donate to the cause, volunteer, or get more information, you can call Tracy at 513-327-8665 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.