Stories

Toni’s Story

 I’m Toni Rodriguez, I’m 36 years old and was born and raised in San Jose. I used to come up here to Santa Cruz all the time. When I was a small child with my grandfather and always dreamed of getting the whole family over here. Shortly before he passed he actually got us moved out here, so I am happy to call Santa Cruz home. I did a lot of back and forth growing up between Santa Cruz, San Jose and from 1999 through 2012 my family and I moved out to Kansas. 

I knew from a young age that I am trans, I identify as trans feminine. It’s only very recently, after leaving Kansas and coming back to California, that I was able to really explore my identity in a safe way. Everybody knew before then, but it was just a matter of material safety. 

Another important aspect of my identity is that I’m a person who uses drugs. I’ve been using opiates in some form for 12 years now. Initially, it was heroin, and then recently, I stopped intravenous use and I abstained from opioids for a few months, and started smoking again. I figure it’s a work in progress, just sort of feeling things out. I figure stopping a 12 year long freight train overnight isn’t going to happen. So I consider it baby steps. The goal is just to manage my life better as far as that goes. I’ve experienced a lot of stigma, really horrendous shit that I took for granted as an observer prior to starting recreational drug use.

As a child my mother and father were multiple felons, heavily involved in gangs up in San Jose. My grandmother sort of raised me whenever mom wasn’t available or in prison, so I was on the outskirts. I got to observe a lot of those aspects of their lives, but was never involved in the crossfire or anything. 

A big part of that for my mother and father was their recreational drug use as well. My mom was in prison when she had me and they took me away immediately after I was born. I only met her and was cognizant of it when she finally got released. I was four years old.

So there were these incidents that I’ve started piecing together with my own lived experiences as far as the things that I went through with my upbringing and my drug use and the places it was leading me.

In 2014 I moved down to San Diego and it was down there that I had my first experience of being homeless for about a year and a half. I was living downtown, mostly. That was the first time I was ever really in Southern California so I was still very unfamiliar with the geography. I was usually kicking it with any of my friends who just sort of follow around the needle exchange van essentially. They’re really punitive and reactionary against the homeless population down there. 

In 2020, when I left San Diego to come back here to move in with my family, I went to the Camp Recovery Center. I had a good job at the time with good insurance and they approved me for 23 days. I completed that stint and came back to live with my grandma, aunt, and little sister over in Soquel. Things were going fine initially, but my aunt, for some reason, started behaving really monstrously to me, surveilling me, watching my every step, just terrorizing me over mistakes I hadn’t even made yet. One day when my drug test came back positive, she told my whole family that I was making heroin out of over the counter drugs in the house which was an absolute lie. They kicked me out on the street during the height of the pandemic. 

I spent a lot of my time hovering between my friend’s places and the Benchlands, which was very difficult. And through the right set of circumstances, I met my current partner who was gracious enough to offer me into her home. We’ve been living together for 3 years now.

But funny enough though, even after getting secured again after that stint of being on the street, I spend about half of my time at any one of the shelters because that’s where all my friends were. I was basically living halfway between the Benchlands, the street, and my girl’s place before we got our current spot. I’d bring supplies, food and help out my buddies if they were sick, I’d tend to their wounds, test drugs, and just do anything that I could.

As far as the ‘people suffering’ stigma, being kicked out of their homes, left on the street and abandoned to the elements, drugs are one consistent resource, even more available and reliable than food.

I never understood what ‘stigma’ meant, initially. I thought it was just another word for discrimination or something. Even after reading the textbook definition, I didn’t really understand what it was. After being kicked out of my family’s spot by my aunt I came to understand ’stigma’ as the dissolution of social relationships, like my family. I was still meeting my social obligations and taking care of everybody, working a job, doing the things that I needed to do and they loved me. But as soon as I failed a drug test, I became a stranger. Worse than a stranger, I became a leper. I understood then that that’s one of the things that leads people to these situations where they’re out on the streets. Regardless of the reason, when somebody uses drugs, the stigma around them is deadly. It kills people. It’s horrifying, it’s scary, it’s absurd, surreal.

One of the major barriers to me stopping using drugs initially was just the fear of getting sick, the process of stopping, and the lack of support that you have to white knuckle it. It’s the only class of drugs that registered doctors will be like, “oh yeah, just quit it immediately, stop tomorrow, you’ll be okay.” 

I just told myself that I didn’t like the way that I was feeling and I finally acknowledged the state that my body was in and that I was using irresponsibly and just compulsively to pass the time, essentially.

It was time to do something different. I’ve never been into the “come to Jesus moments” and saying I’m never touching this ever again. It’s just setting yourself up for failure and you gotta be realistic about this. So, I just felt it out and I haven’t missed it as far as shooting up. The fentanyl that’s going around now, besides the fact that it’s super powerful and you can overdose on it, administering it intravenously is also super painful. 

It’s only recently in my life that I’ve taken activism around this subject seriously and I’m trying to get involved in doing more for the community. I do a lot of activist work through my art. Recently I made an illustrated guide on how to administer the Naloxone (NARCAN) nasal spray to recover people from overdoses. I’m working on one right now that’s a guide on how to use the Bernese method for suboxone administration. 

What we do to people who use the ‘wrong drugs’ doesn’t work, it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a hamster wheel as far as working towards any sort of legitimate change. 

The biggest obstacle around discussing it is challenging the disease model of substance use and mental illness. Let’s reframe the discussion as a matter of bodily autonomy. Upper class, rich folks have access to pharmaceutical-grade drugs that we could never get our hands on, and I’m not forced to answer for any of their behaviors. The body that I happen to inhabit, my income bracket, and so on, all of these things translate to the track that is allowed for me to continue on, now that my status as a ‘drug user’ is known.

The fact that a lot of services offered towards people like me and the homeless population in general are contingent upon your participation in things like a recovery program or abstinence from drugs, it’s like, well, “you didn’t require that before I became homeless.” People that are currently housed are using drugs all the time, but they don’t have to do all of this. It is not only counterintuitive but dangerous. 

I’m hoping that through my outreach and working with my friends that I can reach the people who pull the strings and make them aware of the disconnect. They don’t have any stake in the game, you know, it’s an abstract to them.

It’s really scary to talk about use publicly. Sharing the fact that you use drugs, regardless of what they are, it’s sort of like being ‘outed’. You can lose your job, you can get cut from social services, all on top of the shame. There is the very real danger of your material safety being torn away from you just from that information being out there.

I just dare to approach the issue outside of this narrative that I lived my dark, shameful life on the streets and I had a demon inside me. That shouldn’t be necessary. It’s like the second someone is educated or has any humanness to them or any validity in a person’s mind then it’s less interesting.

Plenty of people use drugs. It’s only a certain subsection of us who are punished with eviction, excommunication, stigma, and disownment from their families for it. But we’re capable of being responsible, contributing to society, having a job, you know, like all of these things that they say are mutually exclusive with drug use, that it’s really not that big of a deal.

It’s just a matter of who has a say over what you do with your body. 

This story was collected in January 2024 by Andrea Feltz, Community Conversations Program Manager

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In Santa Cruz County, fatal overdoses from fentanyl increased 13-fold from 5 deaths in 2019 to 65 deaths in 2022 (June 2023 Santa Cruz Coroner Data).

How do I recognize signs of an overdose?

  • The person is unconscious and you can’t wake them.
  • The person is breathing slowly or not at all.
  • Lips or nails are turning blue.

What should I do if I see an overdose?

  • Call 911 immediately!
  • Say “I think someone may have overdosed. They aren’t breathing.”
  • Use Narcan (the opioid overdose reversal drug) on the person, if you have it.
  • If the person is not breathing and you know how, do rescue breathing (mouth-to-mouth) or chest compressions.
  • Lay the person on their side once they resume breathing.