Note: The names of the people profiled in this story have been changed. The original version of this story has been slightly changed to further protect confidentiality and has been published in The Sweep Report: A look at key indicators, trends and needs in Broomfield, Colorado, USA.
Mercy Johnson survived Hurricane Katrina and the 10 feet of water flooding the streets of New Orleans’ Eighth Ward by staying on the roof of her one-bedroom home for two days.
Mercy, 27 at the time, recalls what it was like before Katrina hit on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. “We didn’t think the hurricane was going to hit us. It was like dead silence. The wind wasn’t blowing, the birds weren’t chirping, dogs weren’t barking. I knew right away something bad was coming. It was so bad that if you tried to stand up the wind would knock you over. People just drowned in their houses.”
She finally managed to make her way to the Louisiana Superdome, a designated “shelter of last resort,” where she and about 14,000 others were forced to endure abject conditions. “There was no running water, no showers, no nothing,” Mercy says.
Eventually, the Red Cross started busing people from the SuperDome to the New Orleans International Airport. Although Mercy’s family lived in a nearby town, the devastation caused by the hurricane made it easier for her to fly somewhere than to travel the 58 miles to her hometown. Mercy remembers, “At the airport on one side you had the people who were alive, and on the other side you had people who were hurt, and right next to that you had dead people.”
She used some money she had saved to fly to Denver to stay with her younger sister Jennifer in Thornton, Colo.
Mercy had worked a series of odd jobs before Katrina, including stints serving drinks at Café Du Monde on Bourbon Street, cooking on a shrimp boat and cooking on an offshore oil rig. “I was fine with water [before], but since Katrina I’m really leery of water. And when a storm comes now I get afraid and hide in the bathtub with the cats. Katrina made me so paranoid about everything.”
At 13, Mercy was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was treated at a mental hospital until she ran away at age 17. She began to travel from state to state. “I did it so I wouldn’t have to be in another hospital,” she says. Mercy periodically visited her family, and eventually returned to settle into life in New Orleans,when Katrina hit.
Soon after arriving in Denver, Mercy started “having problems” as she puts it. “I was blacking out and walking places at 2 a.m. and I couldn’t remember them.”
She checked in to University Hospital, was diagnosed with dissociative post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a month or two after fleeing Katrina, Mercy was sent to a group home in Westminster for treatment.
She met her future husband, Dustin Johnson, 22, at the home. “I was planning on leaving and going back to Louisiana, but Dustin wrote me a note, and that stopped me from leaving. I thought he was such a beautiful person. He stuttered, but I thought what he had to say was important. I used to get so mad at people when they would interrupt him. When I met Dustin, I learned a great deal about patience, because I wanted to learn what he had to say.
“At first, he was a real jerk, but I saw something underneath that, that he was a good person. I saw right through him, and I said, ‘I’m not going to give up on you.’ He always had jokes and made me laugh…He could always make someone laugh. I just fell in love with him.”
Ironically, Dustin, who was from Connecticut, also came to Denver to live with his sister, except he came to pursue a music career and go to college. His own struggles with mental illness—he was bipolar and manic depressive—forced him to drop out in 2006.
“Dustin was really depressed,” Mercy says. “He called the police when he was living with his sister because he felt like killing himself.”
Yet, in spite of their illnesses, Mercy and Dustin eventually got married and moved to Northglenn, Colo.
“Dustin understood me and I understood him,” Mercy says, noting that they received unexpected, bad news as a result of their change in marital status—their disability incomes decreased by a combined total of $785 per month
Both of them were on doctor-prescribed pain medication, Dustin from being hit by a car, and Mercy, from a suicide attempt in which she jumped from the fourth story of a building and broke both of her hips, her tailbone and four ribs. Unfortunately, in 2009, the couple decided to exchange medications, and were flagged by doctors and subsequently denied prescriptions.
Through an acquaintance they obtained and started using heroin, originally to help them during their detoxification from their pain medications. Mercy admits they quickly became so addicted that every four days they bought an “eight ball,” the equivalent of $200 worth of heroin.
They moved to Louisiana to get clean, but then returned to Colorado, moving first to Aurora, then living homeless for a time. “He wanted dope more than I did,” Mercy says of her husband. “So many times I would just squirt it out, and he would get so mad. But I would say, ‘I love you so much! Don’t you understand what this is doing to us?’”
One night in 2010, Dustin overdosed. “I saw him turn blue in front of me,” Mercy says. “You have no idea how scared I was…I called the police on myself and told them I had heroine, because I was terrified for him. I was afraid he was going to die.”
Dustin survived his overdose. Knowing they needed a change, the Johnsons acted when they saw an ad in the newspaper advertising an apartment in Broomfield. “I thought, ‘If I stay clean, he’ll stay clean.’ So we sold everything we had and moved to Broomfield to start over,” Mercy says. Dustin sold all four of his guitars, including two bass guitars and a “Dimebag” guitar.
In Nov. 2010, they moved into their apartment on the third-floor of a complex on Marble Street. They stayed clean. At times, they walked three miles round-trip to the North Denver Cares food pantry on 117th Avenue to get groceries. Sadly, six months after they moved in to their apartment, a homeless man they were sheltering obtained some heroin. Mercy and Dustin used it. Mercy fell asleep. When she woke up on April 2, Dustin was dead, and Mercy herself spent three days in the intensive care unit of a local hospital.
After Mercy recovered, she moved into a different apartment on the same floor of the same complex, and soon found two roommates to share the cost of her rent. She received rent assistance from the Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) and Broomfield Health and Human Services (HHS).
She now rides the bus in the mornings to a part-time job in Boulder. She attends a support group, takes mandatory drug tests and connects periodically with a parole officer.
“I couldn’t control [the heroine addiction],” Mercy says, choking back tears. “It took [Dustin] away from me.”
Mercy applied for and was accepted into a transition program at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless late this summer. She moved out of her apartment in Broomfield, stored her things in Boulder and stayed in the shelter for a short time. She also entered her name in a lottery for a permanently affordable apartment in Longmont in September. In the meantime, she was moved to an area residential treatment program.
At the beginning of October, thanks to the help of a mental health caseworker, Mercy moved into a room in a 24-month transitional housing facility in Boulder County.