She used to be the lady next door. Now she’s strung out on Rio Grande Street.

Old stereotypes of drug addicts are fading away as the pharmaceutical painkiller epidemic sweeps across all social strata in concert with sharply increased heroin trafficking.

In 2014, almost a third of Utah adults, aged 18 and over, had been prescribed an opioid painkiller over a 12-month period, according to the Utah Department of Health. Data reveal that some 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription opioids. 

These are stories of four Utahns who describe how they came to be residents of or frequent visitors to an area of Salt Lake City that has become synonymous with drugs and homelessness

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake Police escort a homeless man with his camping gear across a lot posted no tresspassing at 500 W. and 350 S. It's an area where homeless are camping out on the 500 West Commons just west of the Rio Grande Depot.
Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake Police escort a homeless man with his camping gear across a lot posted no tresspassing at 500 W. and 350 S. It's an area where homeless are camping out on the 500 West Commons just west of the Rio Grande Depot.

K. is a 60-year-old woman who camps near Rio Grande Street, where she can easily get heroin.

She didn’t want to provide her full name, but said she’s been on the street since 2009. Like many, K. got her start down the road to addiction with painkillers prescribed by a physician after surgeries. Now her habit costs $60 to $80 a day — four injections of heroin.

“It doesn’t take much to get here,” she said of an addict‘s life on the street, ”but it’s hard to get out.”

At one time, K. lived in Sugar House, having earned a nursing degree. She married and had four children. It was a typical middle-class life.

As she grew older, K. had surgeries on her hips and knees. After each operation, her doctor prescribed painkillers, including opioids, such as oxycodone. She was on them for so long that her physician eventually prescribed methadone — a treatment for addiction to opiates.

But when K. was taken off methadone, she went into withdrawals and turned to heroin. Eventually, she ended up in the Rio Grande district, where she stays in a small tent.

“I don’t want to live like this,” she said. ”I would rather live in a shed in someone‘s backyard.”

K. supports her addiction, in part, through a federal program called Supplemental Security Income that provides stipends to the disabled and elderly. But she needs far more than the $700 per month she receives to feed her addiction.

She can’t understand why authorities watch as so many suffer from heroin addiction and the violent withdrawals that can be deadly.

“There’s no reason for people to go through this,” K. said of the hardships of addiction on the streets.

“These people don’t want to be here,” she said. ”They don’t want to die here. But they don’t have a choice.“

Heroin is easier to get than ever before, according to police who patrol the Rio Grande area on bicycle and foot. Decentralized networks of dealers make curbing the drug traffic difficult, authorities say.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heroin user Kellie Sorenson sits on a park bench near the needle exchange tent on 500 West & 300 South, Thursday, August 3, 2017.
(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heroin user Kellie Sorenson sits on a park bench near the needle exchange tent on 500 West & 300 South, Thursday, August 3, 2017.

Kellie Sorenson is 23-years-old and a mother of four children, including a four-month-old. She just got thrown out of her house by the children’s father, she said from a bench along 500 West near 300 South.

Since the age of 17, she’s been using opioids and heroin. She said she suffers from depression and anxiety and has low self-esteem. She didn’t graduate from high school.

“I feel welcome here,” Sorenson said of the Rio Grande district. “I‘m not going to be judged and they can’t make me leave. I feel loved.”

She shoots up heroin two to three times a day.

“I feel like I‘m shooting up love,” she said. “All my worries go away. I don‘t have all those negative emotions.”

Sorenson grew up in Provo and lives, off and on, in Utah County, she said.

“This is my runaway spot,” she said among the homeless people and drug addicts along 500 West.

Sorenson was not specific about her falling out with her boyfriend. But she said misses her children ages 6, 3, 2 and 4 months.

“I‘m not choosing this. I’d rather be home with my kids,” she said. “But my mental issues and drug addiction won‘t let that happen.”

Sorenson knows life on the street as a drug addict can be perilous — overdoses are not uncommon.

“I wrote a ‘just-in-case’ note to my kids,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Black tar heroin from Mexico is at the center of the drug traffic in the Rio Grande district. It is not as refined as the heroin from the Middle East and contains more impurities. And it relatively cheap — $15 per dose.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Celeste waits her turn as the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition provides a needle exchange on 500 west between 200 south and 300 south in Salt Lake City Thursday July 27, 2017. The state's increased attention to the Rio Grande neighborhood comes as Utah's leading needle exchange provider is under fire for handing out more needles than it collects. Mindy Vincent, founder of the coalition, says the goal was never to break even, and that optics aside, needle exchange is proven to reduce the spread of disease among IV drug users.
Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Celeste waits her turn as the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition provides a needle exchange on 500 west between 200 south and 300 south in Salt Lake City Thursday July 27, 2017. The state's increased attention to the Rio Grande neighborhood comes as Utah's leading needle exchange provider is under fire for handing out more needles than it collects. Mindy Vincent, founder of the coalition, says the goal was never to break even, and that optics aside, needle exchange is proven to reduce the spread of disease among IV drug users.

Celeste is an attractive 44-year-old woman who has been living around the Rio Grande area for more than two years.

She wears makeup and her nails are painted. At first glance, she doesn’t look like a drug user.

Although the area is strewn with garbage, human waste and used needles, she prefers sleeping outside, she said, because the homeless shelter is filthy.

Living in the Rio Grande district is difficult, she said.

“If you want to see a whole new reality, come down here. It‘s harsh,” she said. “Emotionally and physically, it‘s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Celeste lived in South Jordan and worked in assisted living for seniors, she said.
She has three grown children and has been widowed twice.

“I’ve been burying people for 15 years. It‘s traumatic” Celeste said. ”I can‘t get used to it. But you have to get used to it.”

Drugs eased the pain, she said. Standing in line at the syringe exchange, Celeste said she uses a variety of drugs.

But it’s heroin that keeps her moving forward.

“I‘m hoping to get a housing voucher,” she said. The vouchers come from federal grants to local governments. 

“I want a house and a puppy,” she said. “I love to work.”

Like many around Rio Grande Street, Celeste is reluctant to give details on how she supports her habits.

“I have an old man who takes care of me very well,” she said. ”I don’t have to worry about those things.”

She paused, then added, “I have good instincts.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heroin user Brennen Gilmore, 22, sits on a bench close to the needle exchange tent on 500 West & 300 South, Thursday, August 3, 2017. Gilmore says he has been using either opioids or heroin for ten years.
(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heroin user Brennen Gilmore, 22, sits on a bench close to the needle exchange tent on 500 West & 300 South, Thursday, August 3, 2017. Gilmore says he has been using either opioids or heroin for ten years.

Brennan Gilmore is 22 and has been using heroin for two years. He started using opioids recreationally in his mid-teens.

“I got addicted to Oxy,” he said referring to OxyCotin. “When they got expensive, I went to heroin.”

For a short stint, he stayed in the Rio Grande area. But now, his mother has terminal cancer and he is living with her in Murray, he said.

He still hangs around Rio Grande, where he can get syringes and score heroin.

He recalled the time when his mother discovered he was using.

“She was disappointed and ashamed,” he said.

“I‘d like to get clean and stay clean, but it’s hard,” Gilmore said “Because I‘ve been on opiates for so long, I feel like my brain needs it.”

After 24 hours without heroin, he said he feels poorly. “After 48 hours, it‘s like the worst flu. Withdrawals can kill you.”

Many people living on the streets in the Rio Grande area didn’t choose to be addicts, he said, referring to the opioid epidemic.

“Not everyone down here is a bad person,” Gilmore said. “Everyone is addicted to something. It‘s just that the people down here are addicted to something that is illegal.”