Friday, July 18, 2014

Reminder on why we need newspapers | Last Word

It’s fashionable to bash newspapers these days.

Actually, it’s always been fashionable to bash newspapers.

And often they’ve earned it.

I, of course, am a newspaper addict.

Fortunately, my addiction remains a cheap one.

You can get the Express-News – a product of the work of hundreds of people here and hundreds more around the world – delivered to your doorstep for less than half the price of a cup of Starbuck’s.

I rarely read a day’s edition without finding something to carp about.

But I also am regularly reminded why I wouldn’t do without it.

This week’s stunning reminder was a three-part series by writer Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje and photographer Bob Owen.
It chronicled the story of Asten Jones, who fought her way out of being a homeless heroin addict, and her mother, Sandy Snell, who (spoiler alert) didn’t.

Jones, who is 30, works at Haven for Hope, one of the few employers likely to say yes when a recovered heroin addict asks permission to fully share her story.

And what a story it is, told with the humble candor of a veteran of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“We had to pursue her,” Stoeltje said of Jones. “”She was reluctant.”

But when she decided to open up, and persuaded her mother to cooperate, Jones was, in Stoeltje’s words, “an open book. She gave me the amazing details. My challenge was to do it in such a way that didn’t sensationalize or exploit them.”

Stoeltje succeeded, and Owen’s remarkable photographs are almost as intimate, including ones of Jones visiting her mother’s “home” under a bridge, where Snell retreated from panhandling for drug money.

“The only thing her mother didn’t want to show was anything to do with drugs,” Owen said. “I was envisioning photographing her shooting up or scoring with her supplier.”

We didn’t need to see that.

The most powerful impact of a story like this is that it lets us know the richness of a life that we otherwise would just throw into a bin in our brain.

What description do we need other than a homeless heroin addict?

But the fact is each life is different, and some, like Asten’s, are remarkable.

By five she was, in effect, a parent to three younger siblings.

By 10 she had suffered trauma and challenges many of us don’t encounter in a lifetime. And then it got worse.

Long-time viewers may remember me telling the story two years ago of another drug addict who had been homeless.

He broke into our house in Houston at 11 p.m. one night nearly 10 years ago.

I was able to shove him out of the house.

Police caught him soon after, and I later learned that he had not meant to harm us.

He was in a drug-induced paranoid state, thinking he was being chased by murderers.

I got dozens of e-mails from Rambo wannabes accusing me of being less than a man for not shooting him.

And I received an e-mail from his mother, expressing regret for what he did and thanking me for not shooting him.

I met with the mother.

She was a medical administrator and raised Joey Calzada in an affluent Houston suburb.

She showed me pictures of a tow-headed boy in a Cub Scout uniform.

But when he reached puberty, she lost Joey to street gangs despite thousands of dollars worth of counseling and therapy.

Then his mother handed me a Houston Chronicle Sunday magazine with her son on the cover.

It was the gripping, up-close story of his and his girlfriend’s drug-ridden life on the streets.

His was very different from Asten Jones’ story.

But they had one thing in common.

They were both told by Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje, newspaper reporter.

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