Last September, 42-year-old Christopher Jouannet was at a dead end. He was homeless on the streets of Seattle, funding a $3,000-a-month heroin habit, in part, with petty theft; his former life as a wealthy snowboarder in Colorado was a distant memory. He almost became just one more addict in jail when an SPD officer recommended him to Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD. Since 2011 the joint city-county program has connected users to counselors instead of booking them for minor crimes and supported the addicts with whatever it takes to get clean: methadone, IDs, cell phones, even yoga. And, unlike in drug court, relapsing isn’t a deal breaker. This spring, as the program got national attention for its unorthodox detour around jail time, Jouannet was in a sober-living house and working at Pike Place Market. He’s finally climbing up from rock bottom. —Allison Williams
Tell me about the incident that got you enrolled in LEAD.
A friend of mine and I were in a suspicious area, a parking garage. The police officers ran us for warrants, and it came up that I had one. They asked me my story, talked to me for a good 15 minutes or so, and decided to call LEAD.
Before you were actually arrested?
I didn’t get arrested. They just turned me over to a LEAD caseworker. She basically took me into McDonald’s, bought me a cheeseburger, and told me about the program. The officers were really nice, actually; they said it could be a really good opportunity for me. I was in bad shape at the time.
Did you ever consider saying no?
Not really, because the other choice was to go to jail.
How is this process different from cleaning up on your own?
It makes it so much easier. Getting on the methadone program was huge because, I mean, that just took drugs out of the equation. That’s all I cared about. And helping me take care of some of my responsibilities, like court things. The phone helped, the ID, a lot of things you need to be a normal citizen. Mental health is a huge one.
Is it different for addicts in Seattle versus Colorado?
I was in a different situation there. I had money, and I didn’t have to see the really ugly side like I’ve seen in Seattle. Like living under bridges and what it does to people’s health and that kind of thing. I was more living the rock star life when I lived in Colorado. But I’ve seen what rock bottom really is while I’ve been in Seattle, and it’s a horrible experience.
What do you wish people knew about drugs in Seattle?
In my opinion, they just tend to overlook it. It’s like an open-air drug market and these people, they’re not necessarily bad people. They may not have the greatest childhoods or educations or whatever, but they do need help. And just throwing them in jail for a few days doesn’t really solve anything. I think LEAD expedites the healing process. I guess the goal is to be productive members of society again, and I’m sure most of us have something to offer.
What does being a productive member of society look like for you?
I’ve been thinking about that since I was 15. Something more than a street addict, that’s for sure.
Christopher Jouannet's caseworker, Mikel Kowalcyk
When you’re working with someone at LEAD, how often are they high?
Depends on the client. Some of my clients, all the time.
Is that hard?
Ahhh. [Laughs] I’m a recovering addict. So there are times when it’s difficult for me personally. But [for] me working with them? No. I go in assuming they’re loaded. It’s a surprise if they’re not.
Is it all heroin use?
No, no. But the heroin epidemic is getting insane. Probably always was. Young white males are a lot of our referrals in the last six months. I don’t want to stereotype, but I have a lot of them. It’s heroin, then crack cocaine and then meth.
What does success look like from your side?
Every client’s different. Success for me, personally, is the honesty of a client telling me “I used” instead of getting a call from a counselor because there’s a dirty [drug test]. It’s the client trusting me enough to let me know what’s going on so that we can work together.
With Chris, getting off heroin and on to methadone is a huge success. He’s working, getting back and forth to appointments. I remember being [in] the car, driving him to a court date, and seeing the light blub come on and him having hope. That potentially he could have a different life. That’s success.
What’s your relationship like with the police?
It’s awesome. I’m someone who was afraid of the police and have been arrested many times, been booked in jail like 23 times.
Why is it important to divert drug users to treatment before booking?
For somebody like Chris, he’s a guy who has no criminal record; he has not been convicted. If this is their first time being arrested, it may be their last. It could catch them before that cycle starts. The more times you’re arrested, the more times you’re going to be.
What’s the big difference between LEAD and other programs?
One, we have money. It makes a big difference. When a client says, “I want to work but I need shoes, I need glasses, I need my tooth fixed,” we have the resources to get through the barriers. A lot of people don’t. I can go buy a par of boots so they can go to work.
Have your clients come to you with really unusual goals?
I had one client who wasn’t ready to stop smoking crack. I said “How about you just smoke crack on weekends?” He laughed, but that’s okay. That’s a goal. One client, who I’ve dragged out from under a bridge and taken to detox twice only for him to leave two days later—his goal is to see a live music show. That’s what he misses. I told him, “One day, we’re gonna do that.” It might be free music in the park, but we’re going to make it happen.
Usually the goals are connected with family. To reconnect with children, because they’re not paying their child support or there’s no relationship.
That’s hard. Because it’s not like a pair of shoes you can go buy.
It’s a difficult one, but we have resources. If there’s a barrier, we find a way to overcome it. There hasn’t been anything yet we’ve said no to. We’ve paid for driver’s licenses, converted fines to community service hours. There’s a lot of wreckage when they come to us. One little piece at a time.
Doing this for 28 clients sounds exhausting.
People have really good intentions. Doesn’t mean they’re good at following through. I don’t get disappointed in people. But addiction—it’s really easy to get angry at addiction.
We get a lot of training, we have a doctor that comes twice a month, we have a mental health guy here, we have a nurse here. We have each other to bounce off of. We also have a masseuse that comes here; it’s awesome. And we have free acupuncture. The staff takes good care of itself, and then we can take good care of clients.