nj.com: Welcome to Herointown, N.J.'s 4th largest city


Welcome to Herointown, New Jersey's 4th-largest city

By Stephen Stirling

With reporting from Andre Malok and Ashley Peskoe. Illustrations by Anna Vignet.

What would happen if you took everyone who is addicted to heroin and opioids in New Jersey and sent them to live in one place?

It would be the state's fourth largest city, boasting a population of at least 128,000.

Its residents are diverse enough that the town would be self-sufficient — with lawyers, politicians, construction workers, teachers and scientists walking the streets.

And you will know one of them.

In fact, social network analysis suggests you likely will know several city residents, whether they toil at a desk behind you or sleep in a bed down the hall.

This city exists all across New Jersey, where heroin and opioid addiction have exploded in the past 10 years, killing more than 5,000 people and enslaving hundreds of thousands more. It's not a new story, but one whose tendrils reach far deeper into the Garden State than most know.

Over the past year, NJ Advance Media has collected hundreds of stories from people touched by this epidemic – addicts, recovering users, mothers, fathers, friends and family – to detail the struggle with addiction.

Last year, we put out a blind call to readership: Tell us your heroin story. It was an experiment — give people an anonymous form and a blank canvas — and see what happens.

The results were remarkable. We received more than 500 responses from 215 towns in New Jersey. The men and women spanned ages 17 to 79. Some responses ran more than 2,000 words.

Since then, 12 months of reporting has taken us into suburban homes and city apartments, and from needle exchanges and rehabilitation centers to jails and cemeteries.

The stories were told in the words of the people who lived them. They detailed joy and heartbreak, anger and frustration.

So imagine, if you will, a town populated by these individuals – the fastest growing municipality in New Jersey. By far.

Our town is fictional, but the voices are real. Heroin users move through addiction along strikingly similar paths. They enter this world and are sucked deep into a community that seems to collapse around them.

Death lurks and any hope of escape seems miles away.

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