Community Politics

Amy Johnson stood on the sidewalk in downtown Louisville, waiting for a ride, and lit a cigarette.

The wind whipped the smoke westward, towards the Baxter Community Center, where some 300 people were taking their seats and prepping to hear Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer give his State of the City address.

Johnson, 41, wouldn’t be attending the annual ceremony, but she was quick to say what she wanted Fischer to talk about.

“The heroin epidemic here in Louisville is really bad,” she said. “I think everybody is having issues with that.”

Johnson has had her own battles with addiction. She started using heroin three years ago and got hooked. Quickly.

“It turned me into somebody I wasn’t,” she said. “I was sick if I didn’t have it.”

Since then, she said she’s lost everything — her house, her car, her kids.

“My whole life, it’s gone,” she said.

A Growing Problem

Heroin use is surging across Louisville.

Local police, firefighters and Emergency Management Services personnel administered more than 3,300 doses of naloxone to residents last year — nearly three times the number of doses divvied out the year prior, according to a recent report from Insider Louisville.

Naloxone is an overdose antidote that’s need has grown to the point where it’s being handed out free of charge at community meetings across the city.

What’s more, drug rehab facility The Healing Place is undergoing a multi-million dollar expansion to make room for more people in need of detox. The city’s jail is often overwhelmed with people who need the same.

Many people, like Johnson, consider the spread of heroin and opiate addiction to be an epidemic.

“A lot of people are depressed because of it,” she said.

Still, Fischer spent little time discussing the issue during his address Thursday.

He briefly touted a new partnership between the Louisville Metro Police Department, federal agencies and local prosecutors to treat overdoses as criminal investigations “to get heroin dealers off our streets.”

He also gave little notice of the city’s recent struggles with record breaking criminal homicides and surging crime.

Fischer focused much of his some 40-minute address on successes across the city. He highlighted developments, projects and programs that he said have led to “a level of prosperity unlike anything in recent memory.”

Successes Take Center Stage

Fischer presented his State of the City address at the Baxter Community Center within the Beecher Terrace public housing complex. As he entered, the beats of the Central High School drumline pulsed through the tenement style housing complex.

The annual event is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Louisville and since Fischer took office, he’s given the address at various locales across the city.

It was at the same community center late last year where Fischer announced Louisville would receive a $30 million grant from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development to help spur a major revitalization of Beecher Terrace and the surrounding Russell neighborhood.

On Thursday, he again noted the impact such a grant will have on the area that’s plagued with blight, poverty and crime.

“Together, as one community, we’ll transform Ninth Street from a divide into a bridge,” he said.

He also listed the accomplishments made since he took office in 2011, including the addition of some 58,000 jobs, $9 billion in capital investments announced or completed, 2,600 new businesses opened, 23 new hotels and 24.2 million tourist visits.

The most resounding applause, however, came when Fischer stressed the important role that immigrants play in the city’s future economic success.

Immigrants are a key element in the city’s economic plan. Fischer has long mentioned that immigrants will help fill some 30,000 open jobs in Louisville.

He said the city’s foreign-born population has doubled every decade since 1990. Currently, immigrants make up about 7 percent of the city’s population.

“Our foreign-born start businesses, they buy homes, they pay taxes, they bring skills, experiences and perspectives we all need,” he said. “The fact is, a great city must be a global city.”

‘It’s like the walking dead’

Though Fischer spent little time discussing the city’s struggle with heroin and opiate addiction, Metro Councilman president David Yates said he trusts it’s a priority for the administration.

“When he addresses the resources we need, I know that’s a top one,” he said in an interview following Fischer’s address.

But for some residents, like Amy Johnson, it’s troubling when government officials don’t talk about the issue.

“It’s like the walking dead around here, I don’t see how everybody else can’t see it,” she said.

Johnson hasn’t used opiates in nearly eight months and wants nothing to do with the drug or the people it attracts in the months to come.

She lifted her leg and pointed to the home incarceration bracelet clamped snugly to her ankle.

“I’ve lost everything,” she said.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.