DERRY — For the 23,000-plus motorists who drive past the intersection of Manchester Road and Ashleigh Drive in Derry each day, Thomas Edward “Red” Young was something of a fixture.
A wiry man with pained blue eyes, close-cropped auburn hair and a sparse stubble of a beard, he would walk the traffic island on Ashleigh Drive at the turn-off toward Walmart, carrying a “homeless” sign and surveying drivers pulling up to the traffic light.
He walked with a vigorous stride — 20 steps in one direction, another 20 back — over and over, like a man pacing a cage.
Some drivers gave him a few bucks; others, words of contempt. Most simply drove by.
“God bless you,” he would say to the ones who gave.
Sometimes, he would cross the street to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, order a coffee and blather about his life — a little too loud, a little too fast — to counter clerks who nodded politely while they went about their tasks. Then he would return to the traffic island and keep walking.
Until one day last fall, when he wasn’t there.
Under a road sign at the head of the traffic island, in the spot where he placed the book bag containing all his belongings while he paced, were stands of flowers, an array of balloons and a hand-made sign that read, “EVERY LIFE MATTERS. IN MEMORY OF THOMAS ‘RED’.”
Sometime last Sept. 29, Young slipped into the hidden tent he had erected in a vacant, overgrown lot two blocks away from the corner where he panhandled and took his final breath after suffering what the medical examiner called “acute fentanyl intoxication.”
He was 34.
His death was just one of what the state attorney general’s office estimates were 470 drug deaths in New Hampshire during 2018, but it poses questions larger than his particular case:
What is the connection between addiction and mental illness? Between addiction and homelessness? What role, if any, do community members play – not just agency workers and first responders, but the everyday citizens who encounter the Thomas Youngs of the world in the course of day-to-day life?
The start of Red's addiction
Young entered this world in Concord, New Hampshire, as a sweet-tempered, 6-pound, 5-ounce infant so easy to care for that his mother, Debbie Ramos of Orange Springs, Florida, called him “my little love bug.”
The collage of childhood photos of him displayed at his memorial service show a round-faced child with a flame of red hair who smiled into the camera with an impish grin and who loved participating in family plays and skits.
Still, he was not without his troubles. His parents divorced and his mother moved with him to Florida when he was 3, ending regular contact with his biological father.
“I think it affected Thomas a lot,” Ramos says.
But it wasn’t until Young was an adolescent that worrisome behaviors started.
At about 14, according to Ramos, he was diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and given Ritalin, commonly prescribed for treatment. After a time, he was put on a different medication, but didn’t like the way it made him feel, his mother says.
So he started smoking marijuana to calm himself. “That was his medication, I guess you could say,” she adds.
Other things helped with the hyperactivity, she remembers. When visiting his grandparents in Northwood, New Hampshire, “he would fish and the fishing would calm him down a lot,” Ramos says.
When he expressed an interest in playing the drums, she and her second husband bought him a set of drums “and it was his calming thing because he was not thinking about smoking marijuana and he’s doing this instead and he’s really good at it,” she says.
He learned a trade: roofing. As an 18-year-old, he came in fifth in a statewide roofing competition that involved laying as many squares of shingles as possible in a given length of time, according to his mother.
But something changed. In retrospect, Ramos says, “I didn’t see all the signs.”
“He kind of stopped playing the drums and wasn’t interested in them anymore,” she adds. “He’d want to go fishing but now looking back on it, I don’t think he was fishing.”
He moved back to New Hampshire while in his early 20s, and that’s when Ramos thinks he started using harder drugs.
The grip of drug use
It’s a pattern familiar to Steve Arnault, vice president for clinical services at the Center for Life Management (CLM) in Derry. The agency assists homeless mentally ill people find housing and, because it receives federal HUD funding, its housing records are public and indicate that Young was a client there.
Especially for someone who starts young, “the addiction is more than physiological,” says Arnault, who emphasized he was speaking generally and not about Young’s particular case. “There’s also a psychological addiction — ‘this is who I am and what my life is…’ You become embedded in this lifestyle.”
In New Hampshire, Young fell into the spiral of addiction, recovery and relapse so familiar to many addicts and their loved ones. He attended a methadone clinic for a time, and was treated in at least two other facilities, according to his mother.
His return to drug use may be hard for many to comprehend, but Arnault points out that most people do not appreciate the strength of addiction’s grip. An addict in Portsmouth, where Arnault previously worked, helped him understand.
“He said, ‘If I put my hands around your throat and squeeze and keep squeezing until you can’t breathe, how much do you want air?’” he remembers the addict saying. “'That’s how much I want heroin.'”
That grip can compounded by something that experts call “co-occurrence” — the presence of both addiction and mental illness in the same person. Not only does that complicate treatment – both the addiction and the mental illness need to be treated at the same time, Arnault says — but it can contribute to a kind of self-perpetuating social isolation.
“You’ll find people with mental illness are stigmatized and have few social connections,” he explains. “To get together and socialize over a drink or a joint is common. Then the circle of friends becomes a circle of users.”
That can be an issue when CLM helps find housing for somebody and it suddenly becomes “a place for everybody to crash now, to use now,” says Arnault. “It’s very common for people to be taken advantage of.” Complaints from neighbors “can lead to eviction or homelessness again.”
Young lived for a time in an apartment CLM helped him find, but ultimately was evicted.
“Homelessness can be a byproduct (of co-occurrence),” says Arnault. “If you’re mentally ill and get addicted and all of your funds are going to opiates, rent is not a priority.”
Homelessness can also push you further down the path of addiction, say Raymond and Victoria Rosa of Derry, former addicts — now three years clean — who looked out for Young and who remember being homeless themselves.
“It makes it 10 times harder because you’re not stable,” says Raymond Rosa. “It’s depressing. You just want to get high and not feel the pain. You can just lie down in that tent and close your eyes.”
“You’re miserable,” agrees his wife. “You ask, why me? I’ll just get numb for the next six hours or so. But it doesn’t go away. Your problems are still there.”
A couple of former employers allowed Young to sleep in their businesses at night, according to Rosa, then changed their minds when he used his paychecks for drugs instead of offering rent money.
Two different Reds
Young’s problems with addiction provided a sharp contrast with the man he could be at other times – a diligent laborer who “could do the work of two men,” according to George Reynolds, a welder who occasionally employed Young for odd jobs.
A devout Christian, Reynolds met Young after he bicycled past his panhandling station on Ashleigh Drive and something made him turned around.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’d like to help you’ and that started a long relationship,” says Reynolds, now of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Reynolds quoted a biblical passage from Matthew about not carrying your burdens alone “and he broke down crying,” he says of Young that day.
They remained friends for the two and a half years before Young’s death, with Reynolds trying to include Young in “fun” activities like bicycling or swimming in Beaver Lake. “He hadn’t been swimming in a long time,” Reynolds says.
Reynolds also helped Young apply for social security, but the $750 he received each month often didn’t last long.
“He would get his check and all of a sudden these ‘friends’ would come out of the woodwork and they’d get him wasted and go through his wallet,” Reynolds says. “It’s easy to rob somebody when they’re passed out.”
“Drug friends aren’t really friends,” he adds. “They’re just people stuck in the same situation.”
Young also worked as a roofer at a couple of businesses in southern New Hampshire. When not working or when he was broke, he turned to panhandling at the highly trafficked Ashleigh Drive-Manchester Road intersection, passed by some 23,830 vehicles a day, according to a 2013 Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission estimate.
If addiction produced a duality in Young, it seemed to do the same to those who passed him on that corner, as though his very presence were a litmus test of a community’s capacity for both compassion and contempt.
A man in a pick-up truck was caught in a video, shared on social media, screaming at Young, calling him a junkie and saying he deserved to die. The driver of another nearby car spat at Young.
A blogger devoted large parts of his website to deriding Young, whom he characterized as a “local whacadoo,” and listing police log details from some of his arrests.
And Young did have multiple arrests – at least four in Derry, including one for protective custody. The others involved non-violent offenses like driving after revocation, possession of prescription drugs without a prescription and shoplifting, after he tried to take a pair of jeans and a set of pajamas on the clearance rack at Walmart.
But others reached out to Young – some, like Reynolds, out of a sense of religious duty, and others, because they identified with his plight.
Robert Pelletier of Derry was homeless himself and living in his van when he first saw Young panhandling on Ashleigh Drive. He brought him a bag of hamburgers from the nearby Burger King out of “a desire to help people.”
Both later ended up working off and on for Reynolds, the welder, and Pelletier remembers Young returning the act of kindness. Pelletier’s dog, Max, was living with him in the back of his van and the dog “needed a bath badly,” he says.
At the end of one work day, “Tom took the dog into George’s place and gave him a bath,” he says. “He was a really good guy. Instead of running off to get his fix, he wanted to help my dog.”
Manny James owns Finelines Barbershop around the corner from where Young panhandled and says Young sometimes dropped in and was always “very respectful.” James liked him so much he sometimes gave him a free haircut.
The Rosas were probably closest to Young, inviting him for dinners and occasionally allowing him to stay at their apartment. Raymond Rosa first met Young some 10 years ago when he was a foreman at a roofing company and the two worked together at another roofing company at the time of Young’s death.
It was Rosa who discovered his body.
A life filled with contradictions
Young had been released from the Rockingham County House of Corrections on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2018, according to jail records. He was clean and looking forward to getting an apartment the following Monday with a social security check he was expecting, Rosa says. Young’s mother and her husband were planning to set him up with a roofing business in Florida, and “I think his plan was to get an apartment and stay clean for a while and then go back down there,” he says.
“It seemed like this time was going to be the time (he stayed clean),” adds Victoria Rosa. “Just the way he was talking.”
Ramos, too, could hear the change in her son, who was calling almost daily. “Instead of asking for money it was ‘Hey, mom, I just want to tell you I love you and have a good day,’” she says.
“He was on the right path,” she adds. “He was going to church, asking questions. He wanted to change because he was coming home to his mom.”
One of the last messages Young texted to a friend, found on his phone by police after his death, read, “I’m getting a place next weekend… I’m going to get something nice. I think I deserve it and I am 100 percent going to be celebrating.”
Young’s last few days seemed to encapsulate the contradictions of his life.
On Friday, the day before he died, Young stopped in at Finelines and chatted with Manny about how good he was feeling now that he was clean. That night, coworkers met him in the parking lot of Walmart to give him his paycheck.
Saturday morning, he walked to Pleasant Valley Nursing Center in Derry to visit his longtime benefactor Reynolds, recovering from a serious hantavirus.
Reynolds remembers how pleased Young was when the nurses brought him breakfast and provided a second one for Young.
“I was probably the last person to see him alive,” Reynolds says.
After not being able to reach Young for two days, Rosa went to his campsite about 6:30 the following night and, peering through the mesh at the top of Young’s tent, saw that he was dead.
He vomited, then contacted Derry police.
The medical examiner later said it appeared Young had been dead about 24 hours.
So what happened?
Arnault says there can sometimes be a triggering event that causes someone to relapse, “but it can be very idiosyncratic, like a commercial about a pain reliever or a mother’s birthday.”
Ramos thinks her son may have been anxious about an upcoming gathering with family members he hadn’t seen for a while.
Ironically, his getting clean may have been a factor in his death, as addicts who return to using after a period of abstinence don’t have the same tolerance for their drug of choice.
“I tell people, when you get clean, stay clean,” says Victoria Rosa, “because the next time you do it (take drugs), it will probably be your last because you’re not used to it.”
The Rosas say the judgment of others often weighed heavily on Young, perhaps adding to the social isolation that Arnault describes as contributing to the cycle of addiction.
“He thought people didn’t like him,” says Victoria. “I just wish he knew how much he was loved when he was here.”
Ramos, too, believes the ridicule of others is costly for people like her son.
“Don’t push them away,” she says. “People like to pass judgment too easily and nobody is better than anybody else.”
Arnault puts it differently.
“We’re taught to be afraid of people who don’t look like us,” he says of the street people who often invite scorn. “But they’re afraid, they’re hungry, they’re needy, they’re cold. They’re just people.”
This story was produced by The Granite State News Collaborative as part of its Granite Solutions reporting project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. Follow us on Twitter @Newsgranite and like us on facebook @collaborativenh.