Eyes closed, Linda Julik takes a deep breath before turning to the crowd gathering around her gray Ford Taurus.
She pops the trunk.
It's a little past 10 p.m. on a recent Friday, and a dozen people — many of whom are homeless and struggling with addiction — are already lined up along the 2500 block of Bloomington Avenue in south Minneapolis, under the glow of a nearby Speedway gas station. Julik and her fiancé, Mark Hoagland, greet each by nickname as they start distributing kits filled with syringes, condoms, matches and vials of sterile water.
"On a busy night, I can do 200," she said. Vials of naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, also go fast. As the weather chills, jackets accompany the kits.
Night after night, the couple walk nearby streets, collecting used needles and passing out clean ones, in hopes of reducing the spread of disease in the face of a rise in drug overdoses, which have already eclipsed 2018's totals with more than three months left in the year. The streets that they walk, in the Midtown Phillips neighborhood, are considered the epicenter of the city's exploding heroin and opioid epidemic.
With support from agencies like South Side Harm Reduction or Hennepin County's Red Door clinic, the couple are part of a loosely knit group of activists, nurses, social workers and community health workers doing outreach in the area, anonymous foot soldiers in the city's fight against the opioid crisis.
While some neighborhoods have received more attention from City Hall, Julik, 45, said that on most nights she and Hoagland, 55, are the only ones walking these streets, whose residents flock to them, affectionately calling them "Moms" and "Pops."
As of mid-September there have been 1,125 overdoses in the city this year, a grim pace of 4.5 a day, according to department statistics.the number of overdose deaths isn't higher is because more people are carrying naloxone.
A thin, frail-looking woman pedaled slow circles around them on a Nice Ride bicycle. A regular on the block, she stopped next to them and declared that she's out of "cleans," as new needles are called.
"I didn't have any, and the only ones I had in my house were my ex's steroid needles," she slurred. Julik found her overdosing a few weeks back, and it took six doses of naloxone to revive her.
With the closure of the Navigation Center that replaced a sprawling homeless encampment dubbed the "Tent City" last summer, Julik said many people found themselves living back on the streets. While everyone took a different path to addiction, most of those living on the streets are trying not to be found, Julik said, either because they owe the wrong people money or they have an arrest warrant. Some women are trying to escape abusive relationships or have had their children taken away by social service agencies, sending them further into a downward spiral. Even those who eventually found housing many end up losing it, she said.
"They don't have the life skills to know you have to pay your bills, to know you can't invite loud people over," she said. "Their parents don't teach them, because a lot of their parents are out here with them."
But out here, she explained, people look out for one another as much as possible. Many have been trained in administrating naloxone. They sleep in shifts so they can keep an eye on one another's belongings. They work together to chase away potential johns who cruise around for young women, many of whom have turned to prostitution to earn money for drugs, she says.
'We're a family'
Julik, who grew up on St. Paul's East Side, said she got into outreach work after going through her own struggles with alcohol and cocaine. Hoagland said that a long prison sentence — and losing his niece to a drug overdose — gave him a new outlook on life. The couple met a year ago doing outreach at the Tent City, which once stood nearby. Like so many of those at risk on the streets, both are American Indian.
A few months back, Julik admits that she had a crisis of faith.
"Am I enabling these people by giving them the needles or am I killing them?" she remembered asking herself. Then, on one of her nightly rounds, she helped save the life of a man who was overdosing, jabbing him with a Narcan needle to bring him back before paramedics showed up. "And I knew at that point that this is what I need to do — this is my calling," she said.
The couple stopped near 26th and Bloomington so that Julik could change the batteries in her flashlight, when four or five gunshots rang out a few blocks east of them. She barely looked up.
As they ducked back into the alley, they spotted a female figure lying on the back stoop of a squat apartment building. Hoagland walked over and gently shook her to make sure she was breathing. She was. As he started back down the alley, a thought crossed his mind. "She might need some cleans, babe," he said to Julik, who walked back and tucked a kit into the woman's purse.
Since he started working the streets, Hoagland explained how his views have changed on how addiction can ruin lives and tear neighborhoods apart. Like those he's trying to help, he made his share of mistakes, the most serious of which — a break-in in which someone was killed — landed him in prison for 35 years. The experience changed his life, he said, and kept him humble.
"I'm one or two bad decisions from being out here with them," he said.
Julik was upset after police recently dismantled several smaller encampments, displacing scores of people. Department spokesman John Elder said the action was authorized after the situation was deemed unsafe, and that officers "helped relocate people into more appropriate areas."
He said that federal law prohibits the creation of an area where addicts are allowed to inject illicit drugs, whether under supervision or not.
The following Monday, Julik and Hoagland are back at it, this time armed with test strips that can detect fentanyl, heroin's more potent cousin and a known killer on the streets.
Sitting on the doorway of a nearby brick building, a woman looks on as a friend with a needle studies her arm for a suitable vein.
The woman said she hopes her story will warn others of the dangers of heroin addiction. "We may get high, we do what we do, but at the end of the day, the block, we're a family," she said. Minutes later, she slides a syringe full of clear liquid into her forearm and nods off.
A suspicious-looking white utility truck drove by, and Julik asked a man and his female companion whether they'd seen it before. It was creeping through the side streets and alleys earlier that night. Julik thinks he's a john, looking to pick up a prostitute.
About an hour later, Julik and Hoagland wind up back at the gas station, where she is chatting up another of her regulars, a droopy-eyed woman who said she was featured in an online documentary film about Tent City.
Just then, Julik caught a glimpse of the utility truck driving east on 25th before turning right onto Bloomington. She pointed it out.
"They're either perverts or some undercovers," said a woman lined up to get some of Julik's last "cleans."
Julik chuckled as she handed her some kits and slammed the trunk shut.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany