It’s just before 7 p.m. in Huntington, W.V., and the street lights have turned on for the night. The east side of the city is illuminated by a deep orange that cascades over the roads and trickles onto the large lawns of two-story homes that line these streets.
Justin Ponton sits with his girlfriend, Jami Bamberger, on the stoop of Newness of Life, the recovery home Ponton runs. Both finish cigarettes (they smoke Newports) as they talk about the homemade cooking — much of it deep fried — they missed by not attending church that Sunday.
Ponton sports skinny jeans, a tight-fitted “Kanye West for President 2020” shirt and black sneakers that are impeccably clean. His arms are tattooed into sleeves of crosses, roman numerals and cartoonish lettering. His bombastic, urban style is very much out of place. Ponton knows — and doesn’t care.
“From where I stand, the skinny jeans make me stand out,” he says.
In front of the couple, a group of five men wearing baseball caps and baggy pants slip out of the shadows and walk side by side in the street. Ponton raises his hand and gives a wave.
They acknowledge him with nods, but continue walking.
“Probably have a meeting or something they need to get to,” Bamberger says as the men walk into Recovery Point, a drug addiction and alcoholism recovery center, at the end of the street.
Bamberger should know. At the time, she was the coordinator for another Recovery Point location about 35 miles away in Charleston, W.V. It follows the same schedule, though that facility is all women.
“Everybody — news outlets, politicians — keep coming to Huntington and talking about how bad it is here. It kills me that Huntington has been reduced to a city that has this dark side to it,” says Ponton. “Dead-ass, we have a problem, but there is so much recovery in Huntington. And nobody ever talks about that.”
In August 2016, Huntington was thrown into the international spotlight when 26 people overdosed on heroin within a five-hour timespan. Since then, a barrage of news outlets have trekked to Huntington — a small city in a rural state that’s experienced the demise of its main industry — to tell the story of how it became the poster child for the nation’s opioid epidemic, nicknaming it the “Overdose Capital of America.”
Residents and public officials resent that moniker. When asked to speak with NationSwell, both the mayor’s office and Huntington Police Department declined to be interviewed, with one member of the mayor’s administrative staff saying that, “even good press is bad press at this point.”
But with a number of options for recovery that are giving thousands of addicts a second chance at life, including peer-mentor models like the ones that Ponton and Bamberger operate, locals have come up with a different moniker for their city: The Recovery Capital.
The Argument for Abstinence
Ponton’s recovery home is well known in Huntington for its underdog approach to recovery. Newness of Life doesn’t turn anyone away; most of its male residents don’t have any money, and many don’t have stable employment. They are exactly how Ponton was when he was in rehab years earlier.
Today, community leaders embrace the 33-year-old former addict. But when he was just 10 years old, Ponton was slinging drugs and living on the streets of a Washington, D.C., suburb.
“There’s something about Justin,” says Kim Miller, a close friend of Ponton’s and director of corporate development for Prestera Center, a rehab clinic. “People just gravitate toward him, and they trust him.”
In and out of prison and rehabs for over a decade, Ponton found himself in Huntington at a faith-based recovery center where he turned his life around.
“I was actually kicked out for selling drugs within the rehab,” he says. “But I came back, got clean and started working for the program. And that’s when I wanted to go out and go on my own.”
Newness of Life is an abstinence-only halfway house that operates out of two houses located next door to each other on the eastern side of Huntington — not far from Marshall University and the local hospital. Setting it apart from the numerous other two-story dwellings in the neighborhood: The vending machine dispensing Monster Energy, a heavily caffeinated drink, sitting on the front porch.
Residents are required to stick to a regimen. Morning chores and attendance at 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and a weekly house get-together are mandatory. No one is allowed visitors, and everyone must have a job.
“I came to Newness and didn’t have anything, didn’t know how to take care of myself or my family,” says Matthew Thompson, a former resident at Newness of Life. “Yeah, it was tough, but with Justin’s help, I was able to get back on track.”
And being tough is exactly what Ponton wants.
“We don’t want you getting too comfortable,” Ponton says. “The point is to become a productive member of society, pay for your child’s bills and get a real home.”
Most importantly, it’s mandatory that every individual living at Newness remain sober — even medically-assisted treatment (MAT) like methadone or Suboxone, which prevents users from suffering withdrawal symptoms like nausea or severe cramping, is not allowed.
MAT is considered the gold standard for recovery treatment. The Centers for Disease Control, The National Institute of Health and dozens of other medical leaders support the use of MAT, and multiple studies have found MAT has reduced opioid deaths from relapsed users by more than half.
“The importance of offering a variety of medication assisted treatment modalities is really that we’re keeping people alive,” says Miller.
But many former addicts reject it.
“You’re just swapping methadone or whatever you’re given for the original drug,” says Ponton. “But not to throw shade on [MAT]… We like to say that not one solution is for everyone.”
In warmer months, Ponton may see only a dozen guys at a time taking shelter at Newness. But once the cold sets in, Ponton usually has a full house, with almost 35 men staying at the facility.
Typically, inpatient rehabilitation centers can cost up to $6,000 a month for residents. Ponton charges just $100 a week for people to stay at Newness of Life, but most of the time, people can’t even afford that. As a result, Newness operates primarily in the red, as Ponton’s mantra is “never turn anyone away, even if they can’t pay.” The houses are in desperate need of maintenance, and shoestring budgets aren’t enough to keep the electricity from being turned off on occasion.
“Somehow, he figures it out. Every single month, the guy has no cash, and he is still able to get those guys heat and water and a roof,” says Ryan Navy, a close friend and executive pastor of New Heights Church, which provides religious counseling for many of the guys at Newness of Life.
“Everyone in the church knows about Newness and Justin, and they’re right alongside them every Sunday,” he says. “They’re willing to help, which kinda shows you what this community has been doing since the news has come out on the problems here — how we’ve tried to address it.”
How Heroin Took Hold
Huntington’s decline is no different than other towns in the Appalachian region of America. Once filled with miners and coal workers, the city found itself struggling in the early 2000s as the clean energy and technology industries decreased the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and highly-educated Millennials flocked to urban centers along both coasts.
It’s easy to blame the economic downturn for why people started using drugs. But that’s leaving a key point out of the narrative: How the drugs found their way into Huntington in the first place.
Workers’ compensation claims over the past two decades have fueled an increased use of opiates nationally, and West Virginia has been flooded with pain killers at a higher rate than other states, according to an investigation done by the Gazette Mail. Since Huntington is a former city of industry, a significant number of its residents incurred injuries on-the-job. Initially prescribed drugs for legitimate pain management — surgery, injury rehabilitation — many later turned to a cheaper alternative, heroin, as states began cracking down on unnecessary prescriptions.
“You had this situation where you had large numbers of people abusing prescription opioids and then we took measures to reduce the availability of those pills,” says Robin Pollini, associate director of the West Virginia University Injury Control Research Center in Morgantown, which studies opioid use in the region. “At the same time, heroin traffickers were looking to these places and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve saturated the urban markets, let’s start going into these smaller markets.’ And what they had was a population that was looking for a cheaper, more available opioid for the pills they were using.”
Bamberger, Ponton’s girlfriend, was one such person. At 21, she was prescribed Oxycontin after undergoing surgery for a sports injury.
“[Prescription] drugs did save my life, at first. They did. Honestly,” she says. “I had knee surgery, but from there — and that’s how it started — it only took about five months, and I was already using a needle.”
Originally from Tennessee, Bamberger excelled in staying clean at Liberty’s Place, a rehab in Richmond, Ky. That success led her to the Charleston, W.V., Recovery Point location, which houses close to 100 women fighting for their sobriety without MAT.
The opportunity to work at a rehab center was something Bamberger, 24, always wanted to do. Before falling into addiction, she was attending school to be a drug counselor.
A tour of Recovery Point Charleston reveals that the women live a militaristic lifestyle. Beds are perfectly made, and there’s a limit on personal items. Residents are confined to the building, strictly monitored and have a schedule that includes daily chores, classes and “trudging” — a practice that requires the women to walk miles each day.
Bamberger explains the practice as, “If we could walk for our drugs, we’re going to walk for our recovery.”
Success is rewarded with a paid gig as a peer mentor, a position that pays minimum wage. Recovery Point claims that more than 60 percent of its former residents remain clean. That number is controversial, however, as critics argue that the organization cherry picks data from its alumni events.
“This program, when you come in, they start you from the bottom and you work your way up. You’re taught responsibility, you get jobs, you have to wake up, you have to you know, do a chore here, you go to classes, you learn a lot more,” says Hailey Miller, 24, who is one of Bamberger’s close friends and a resident at Recovery Point.
Get to Huntington
Some states — including those outside the Appalachian region — have started to look at ways proactively to combat opiate addiction. For example, Washington, Colorado and Vermont have discussed legislation that would allow safe injection facilities where users could receive sterile injections while under supervision.
Those programs have come under fire for a host of reasons, including the assumption that they lead to endorsement of drug usage. But safe injection sites are known to be effective in curbing opioid use and overdose. In one study, their use lowered the number overdoses in addition to reducing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.
For now, recovery homes and rehabs are the primary go-tos for people seeking help in Huntington. That’s primarily because the city has become very well-versed in triage, but not in prevention or identifying those who are currently in need of help.
“When you’re in the midst of what has been labeled an epidemic, you kind of get in emergency response mode,” says Prestera’s Miller. “What we’re doing is putting out fires a lot. We’re helping the people that we know are coming in seeking our services, and we’re throwing everything at them.”
The work doesn’t stop once someone is clean. Relapse is imminent for many; up to 60 percent of those in recovery will abuse drugs again, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, part of the National Institute of Health.
Miller says that there’s no “best solution” to solve for addiction or eliminate the chance of relapse, including MAT. In multiple instances nationwide, addicts placed into abstinence-only recovery programs by drug courts wound up dead because they started using again.
This is why Ponton doesn’t claim Newness of Life residents achieve success, only a chance at it. And it’s why he keeps fighting for others.
On the Sunday morning that NationSwell is with Ponton, he receives a call from an old friend who is using drugs again. The guy is high and called Justin in a moment of weakness, wanting to get help and come back into the program. It’s a phone call Ponton gets often — sometimes daily — he says.
“Alright,” Ponton tells the friend. “Get to Huntington.”
The friend arrived, as promised, but used again the very next day.
A Winter Gift
This past November, Ponton’s heating systems at Newness of Life were shot, and the guys were at risk of having to spend the entire winter with no heat — a scary prospect considering Huntington’s winters are brutal.
“I don’t know where we’re gonna get the money to fix this,” Ponton says under his breath as he analyzes a spreadsheet that reveals in angry red ink the thousands of dollars he’s behind on his bills.
Two days later, Ponton and Navy, the pastor, meet in the back of Lafayette’s, a cigar and wine shop located in downtown Huntington. Navy had news that could only be announced over a Romeo y Julieta cigar: An anonymous donation had been made to Newness in the form of a new heating system.
Less than a week later, the guys at Newness of Life were living in a warm place again. They may still be battling addiction, but at least they wouldn’t be spending the winter in the cold.
Correction: A previous version of this video incorrectly stated that Ponton and Bamberger opened a new recovery facility in January 2018.
Homepage photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari for NationSwell.