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Shorty's comeback 

Kelvin Wallace has been given one more chance to prevail over the heroin addiction he's struggled with for decades. "A whole lot is riding on me getting this right."

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Because of his previous convictions, Shorty would have been looking at a minimum six-year sentence even with a plea deal, if he hadn't been in veteran's court. "I caught a break," he says. If he'd gone to trial and somehow won his case "I would have got back out there and continued using, I know that for sure. And it would have been a matter of time before I was back in court."

The criminal justice system hasn't been the main thing dragging Shorty down. Heroin's been the culprit—along with, at times, cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol.

In high-poverty neighborhoods like those on the west side that Shorty grew up in, the struggle with drugs is a familiar one. Drug addiction may "cut across all classes," as we often hear, but the people who can least afford to be victimized by it are the ones most susceptible to it.

While some studies show a genetic vulnerability to substance abuse, Shane Darke writes in his 2011 book, The Life of the Heroin User, that the bulk of research implicates environment more than genetics. The debilitating childhoods that poverty often generates make it much more likely that substance abusers will have come from a disadvantaged background. And addicts are far more likely to have had parents who, like Shorty's parents, were themselves substance abusers.

Drugs offer the poor temporary relief from their misery. "Like all people in need, the poor look for what works, what is available, and what is accessible," Merrill Singer, a medical anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, writes in Drugging the Poor. "Drugs meet all of these needs. . . . That they also have long term serious health, fiscal, and emotional costs does not diminish their short-term benefits."

The costs are especially high for those who are disadvantaged to begin with and who can't afford private treatment if they do get addicted. Says Shorty: "People from poorer backgrounds, they can be white or black or any color—it just seem like when they get hooked to this shit, it tears them up more than it does somebody who got money."

The accessibility of drugs in poor neighborhoods makes them particularly alluring—and harder for addicts who live there to avoid them. Drug dealing was pervasive on the west side when Shorty was growing up, but it's even more so today, he says. "In the 70s and 80s, there might be one guy dealing on a block. Now every block, it's three or four individual sellers."

He says he regrets the dealing he did, because of the harm he knows that drugs have wreaked on his neighborhood. "You got youth seeing drugs as a way out. They think the way to get out of the ghetto is to sell poison to their own people. If you don't become a victim to the drugs, then you become a victim to the other shit."

Drugs, Shorty says, "got in our neighborhood, and we never got rid of them."

A dozen clients live in Shorty's recovery home, two to a room, along with a pair of house managers, who also are recovering addicts. Most of the clients are on probation or parole. All the beds are made, and the rooms, halls, and kitchen are immaculate.

"It's really structured here," Shorty tells me. "Anything you eat out of or wash out of, you have to take care of it immediately—ain't no laying back waiting till later. When I got here, the managers came off as hard-asses, like drill sergeants. The first day I wanted to tell them, 'Hey man, who the fuck do you think you're talking to?' When you first get in a program, you fight and wrestle with every fucking thing. You put up a lot of resistance, because you really ain't made your mind up yet. You're thinking, Am I just doing this shit to get out of jail?"

The recovery home is 27 miles from Shorty's Humboldt Park neighborhood. He's glad it's so far away, he says—he needs to keep his distance from his running buddies, and the temptations that come with them. If he returned to his hood now, he says, "I'd get stopped 50 times—'Where you been, Shorty, come here, man, let me hug you!' And you hug one of them guys, and you smell that alcohol."

He's been in treatment before, and learned a lot from it, he says, but not enough to stay clean long. Soon he'd be back to the same old same old, and police would catch him again with a bit of powder in thumbnail-size bags. But this time's different, he insists.

"I no longer have the desire to use drugs because of the pain they've caused me. My ass is raw and hurt. After I start bingeing, I find my way back to a police car. I'm tired of living a substandard life. I'm tired of my addiction always sending me back to jail. I thank God it hasn't killed me."

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