Opinion

It’s time to look drug users right in the eyes | Commentary

Shortly after I moved to Vashon, I was driving too fast through town and had to brake hard at a crosswalk to let an older woman amble across the street. She threw up her hands at me, and I yelled something unkind out the window. Two weeks later, I went to the first meeting of my book club and who should walk in the door but that very same woman. One thing quickly became clear to me. You have to behave on Vashon, because no one is a complete stranger.

While it took some getting used to, I’ve liked that lack of anonymity, because when you can’t hide you become more a part of your community. Even if you don’t know someone, it’s likely you know some little thing about them — what sport their kid plays, the name of their dog, how long they’ve lived here. And if you’ve grown up on this island and remained to raise a family, it gets so you feel like you know almost everyone.

That familiarity often leads to a sense of safety — or it should. Yet when some of those people fall on hard times and become involved in drugs and other illicit activities, how does a small community respond? Do we look out for our troubled neighbors? Do we call their families when we know they’re hanging out with “the wrong crowd?” Or do we look away, because, after all, we know these people, and sometimes knowing them makes the situation a little too uncomfortable.

In the past couple of years, my personal sense of safety on the Island has slipped away. It seems to me like I’m reading about more burglaries. I’ve become more aware of folks wandering around town who seem high or drunk. I’ve come across people asleep in makeshift tents in wooded areas where I have regularly walked our dogs for years.

In our immediate neighborhood, we have a house that some neighbors refer to as “the house of ill repute” — a place that has garnered headlines recently because of the tragic death of a 27-year-old woman, whose body was found on the property. The home’s main resident has been arrested for methamphetamine possession; the place is known as the local flophouse. A local sheriff’s deputy told me, “When there’s a suspected drug house, crime will spill out into the surrounding neighborhood.”

Sure enough, in just the past six months, we’ve experienced several incidents: a suspected prowler at our house past midnight; a wasted individual stumbling down the middle of our road at dusk; another wasted individual sitting in the middle of the road at 4 a.m.; an expensive car pulling up in front of a ramshackle house, where a guy leaned into the car to hand the driver something wrapped in a plastic baggie; an incoherent woman trying to get into my car while I was parking on a quiet road to walk my dogs.

Except for the prowler at our house and the guys in the middle of the road, I did not report most of these incidents. Why? Mostly because it is easier to look the other way, and, quite honestly, because I’ve been afraid to get involved. This is Vashon: I am less anonymous here; there’s always a risk of offending someone, becoming known as a busybody or becoming the target of someone’s anger.

But my looking the other way has made me wonder: Why don’t we care more as a community about a drug problem that is spilling out not just into my neighborhood but into our town center? Why do we get worked up about the location of our library or dogs in Island Center Forest but turn the other way when it becomes increasingly obvious we have a serious drug problem?

Are we becoming that stereotypical small town that hides its serious problems because we all know one another? If you’ve lived here all your life, like some of my neighbors, you’re sure to recognize many of the visitors to this house of ill repute. You might even remember what they were like in high school or where they worked or if they’ve suffered a serious illness — or maybe even that one of them was your son’s old friend.

I’m a relative newcomer to Vashon, having lived here less than 20 years, and yet I recognize that 30-something guy mumbling and stumbling down our street as my kids’ old sports coach.

Next time you see someone who looks like they’re not in their right mind because of drugs, take a real look at them. Don’t turn your eyes away. Because I can bet you that you may recognize that person — whether you’ve waited in line for a latte with them at Café Luna or sat next to them at a high school football game. When you realize you know them at some level, that they are an integral part of your community, it gets harder to simply look the other way.

Drugs like methamphetamine are lethal, not just to individuals but to communities. I know meth has worked its way into our neighborhood, and on this small island, where generations of people choose to put down roots, my neighborhood is your neighborhood.

This problem isn’t my problem or my neighborhood’s problem. It is Vashon’s problem. We are known for our generous and innovative nature. As Islanders, we are the kind of people who make our voices heard and who are not afraid to go out on the line to improve the health and safety of our community. It is well past time that we get together as a community and work with our local law enforcement agencies and our social service agencies to figure out some solutions.  It is time we all stop looking the other way.

 

— Cynthia Pollock is a writer, avid runner and mother of two.

 

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