Taking short, rapid puffs off a cigarette, Jay Gregoric tries to remember which of his many pockets his so-called “ground score” is in. After a few minutes of searching, he pulls out a quarter-sized piece of white paper, folded up tightly. “I found this this morning,” says Gregoric, who’s homeless. A ground score is what it sounds like—a score of drugs that someone finds on the ground.
The bag has 20 bucks’ worth of what Gregoric calls “daytime” wrapped up in crisp white paper that he says he found under a picnic table at the park. It was a nice way to start his morning.
Gregoric, who grew up in Santa Cruz, is sitting by the railroad tracks near Depot Park. Those who hang out here call it Desolation Row. In the distance, giggling and joyous soccer players celebrate a goal, and children skip excitedly up Center Street, dragging their parents toward the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on this hot Friday afternoon. Draped in oversized military fatigues, Gregoric resembles a pyramid-like pile of filthy laundry as he sits slumped under a tree, near some portable toilets.
Gregoric, a longtime drug user, knows the ins and outs of where to score.
“Daytime is meth. It’s everywhere on the Westside,” Gregoric explains, massaging the plain white package between his thumb and index finger. “The Westside is all daytime people. Most of them don’t do heroin anymore. “‘Nighttime’ is heroin—it’s mostly downtown. ‘Daytime,’ ‘nighttime.’ It’s the lingo down here. Everyone knows that. Even the cops know that.”
On the streets of other cities, users may know heroin as “black” and meth as “white.” “It’s a Santa Cruz thing. It’s a small town,” Gregoric says.
During his one year at the helm of the Santa Cruz Police Department, Police Chief Andy Mills says he has witnessed an “ever-worsening epidemic” of drug use among the homeless population of Santa Cruz County. “Meth and heroin offer different types of highs,” he says. “Heroin has certainly been on a surge here in Santa Cruz. A lot of people use multiple drugs—all of the above. This is so dangerous. With heroin, the danger is using it, OD’ing, and then dying. Meth, to me, is the most destructive drug physiologically.”
Gregoric’s life as a drug addict began with crystal meth, but he says that his main addiction these days is heroin. He has become a hybrid user. “It kind of sucks. It has to be both at the same time. A certain quantity of each,” says the 29-year-old, who’s wearing pink sunglasses, and a backward green baseball cap. He also keeps an intimidating metal baton, technically classified as an illegal weapon in the state of California. “Take a little bit of heroin and a little more of day—mix them together. It’s called a ‘goofball’ or ‘speedball.’”
According to the 2017 Homeless Census, 41 percent of the county’s homeless struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol. For years, local homeless drug users gravitated toward cheap, readily available crystal methamphetamine, but recently, a wave of inexpensive, high-quality heroin from Mexico has changed things on the streets.
Mills says he read recently that four-fifths of heroin addicts are homeless. “I call it the story of the chicken and the egg,” says Mills. “Are they using heroin and they’re homeless, or are they homeless and using heroin?”
The habit of hybrid using is particularly dangerous, and several of Santa Cruz County’s high-profile overdoses in recent years have stemmed from cocktail mixtures of drugs.
After more than six years as a homeless addict, Gregoric says he wants to get clean, but there are few addiction services for users like him in Santa Cruz County.
Rudy Escalante, Capitola’s former police chief, is CEO of Janus of Santa Cruz, the only licensed withdrawal management facility in Santa Cruz County. He says he sees “more people abusing substances now than ever before.”
“Our program has expanded,” Escalante explains. “But it’s not enough. There’s a need for more. Addiction is a societal issue that is getting worse. Meth and heroin are the two drugs we see the most issues with.”
Mills, who has served in two other departments in California, says services are of particular importance in Santa Cruz County, where drug and alcohol abuse are among the worst in the state. “We have absolutely no beds available for juvenile addictions and very limited beds for adults with addiction. There is a six-to-eight-week waiting list for a bed,” Mills says. “When you are sick, you want that bed right now and not in eight weeks. The issue becomes capacity, and it’s serious.”
Other than a skateboard and his billy club, Gregoric doesn’t keep many possessions. He doesn’t lug around a shopping cart filled with clothes or a backpack. He doesn’t have a tent or sleeping bag.
“I literally will sleep on the road, in a parking lot sometimes, in a porta-potty, I’ll sleep anywhere,” he says. Earlier this morning, when rummaging through a fly-infested dumpster behind Ferrell’s Donuts, he discovered his new set of dirty, military fatigues.
When Gregoric first became homeless at age 23, he says, it didn’t always seem like a bad life. He always enjoyed the weather in his hometown. He enjoyed hanging out at the beach and checking out girls. Over the years, he’s learned some lessons. “Do you know what D.A.R.E. really means to me?” he asks, referencing the acronym for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, made famous in the bumper-sticker slogan “D.A.R.E. to Keep Kids Off Drugs.”
“Drugs Are Really Expensive!”
“Drugs are a very, very expensive habit,” says Mills. “It’s simply not sustainable through normal means. The homeless beg for money, use public assistance, and there’s a lot of theft. There’s certainly a lot of theft on the street because of drugs.”
On Desolation Row, I ask Gregoric how it is that he’s able to survive.
The question is met with silence, and then, softly, “I get by, man.”