The back of Barrett Hamilton’s big white van is filled with tents, tarps, dog food, heaters, hand warmers, toilet paper, gloves, socks, fentanyl test kits, naloxone and coffee.
As the peer outreach supervisor at BestCare Treatment Services, which helps people coping with addiction across the region, the 50-year-old Hamilton understands how to encourage recovery among those suffering in Central Oregon’s overdose crisis. A stout, tattooed, bespectacled man with a raspy voice, he doesn’t lecture people on the dangers of drugs and the values of treatment. And he doesn’t simply provide handouts.
Driving his van on U.S. Highway 97 toward a homeless encampment on Hunnell Road, he has a simple goal: “It’s about helping them stay alive long enough to make a choice,” said Hamilton.
For decades, Oregon and states across the country tried to curb substance abuse through aggressive policing during the nation’s so-called war on drugs. Critics derided the tactic as ineffective and costly. It saddled people with criminal records that hindered many aspects of their lives, prompting many to use drugs again.
Now, amid a series of compounding problems exacerbated by the pandemic — homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness — Oregon is moving away from that strategy. Fueled by a massive investment of funds from the state’s drug decriminalization measure, Measure 110, outreach workers like Hamilton are increasingly at the front of the fight.
Their goal is to help people fulfill their basic needs so, eventually, they might seek treatment. There are four of them who work alongside Hamilton at BestCare Treatment Services. All have had previous struggles with homelessness, substance abuse, alcoholism or incarceration. Hamilton said this is vital for building relationships.
“They can tell that, when I’m talking to them, I’m not judging them. I’m not looking down on them,” said Hamilton.
They help people obtain government-issued identification, Social Security cards, birth certificates, resumes, food-stamp applications and more. They support people who are trying to get their criminal records expunged and help people remove their tattoos so they can find work. They take people to a local shower truck or help them get haircuts.
They travel across town, meeting people in camps and out in the surrounding forests, often carrying a yellow and white paper with statements of support.
“No shame. No lectures,” the paper says, “just a helping hand from people who know the road you’re traveling, all free of charge.”
They have been dispatched amid a mounting crisis. Overdose deaths climbed for three consecutive years in Central Oregon, with 29 reported in 2021, the state’s most recent data. Last year, nearly 36,500 people in the region reported struggling with substance abuse, yet about 1% of them received treatment, according to a 2022 analysis from two Portland-based universities.
For Hamilton, who is 10 years sober, this problem is personal. Before this job, he had never had long-term employment. Like his father, he had struggled with addiction for much of his life. His rock bottom was the moment he sat in jail after a series of drug-related arrests, knowing his 7-year-old daughter was likely seeing his face on the news.
Now he works for the treatment center where he was once a patient. He knows from his own experience that addiction is complicated, involving many facets of a person’s life. As he travels around to camps, he hears many people’s stories.
“Most of the public acts like they’re lepers,” he said. “They’re people.”
Hamilton parked the van along Hunnell Road on the north side of Bend as people peered from the tents and trailers nearby. With him on this day was 45-year-old Olen Grimes, a caseworker who wore a gray beanie embroidered with one word: “clean.” They prepared fresh coffee, because everyone loves coffee on a cold winter day, and serving it is one way to get people talking.
“Want some coffee?” Olen asked a gray-bearded man named Santiago Benegas.
“Hell yeah, I’ll kiss you for that,” said Benegas, 70, who wore an orange and white flannel and blue jeans.
“We’ll hold off on the kissing for now,” Grimes said.
Not everyone on this road — situated near a Lowe’s, Home Depot, Michaels and other stores — is struggling with substance abuse. Still, it’s become a site of frequent overdoses and lawlessness. Law enforcement and paramedics frequent the area, cracking down on major drug distributors or responding to overdoses. In October, emergency responders reported at least four drug overdoses on Hunnell Road over the course of a week.
The road has drawn widespread concerns from the community. City officials plan to sweep the area, which would leave dozens of people displaced with no clear indication of where they might go. Meanwhile, the impact fentanyl is having on the community is well-known.
Michelle Hester, 53, who had been living here for a little more than a year, said a man she knew at Hunnell Road went to a 90-day treatment center. Soon after he got out, he died of a fentanyl overdose.
“I’ve lost too many friends to that stuff,” she said.
Stacey Ray, 60, was helping a friend with work on the roof of a trailer when she heard someone yell for help. She ran inside a nearby trailer and found a man unconscious and purple, despite receiving multiple doses of naloxone. She grabbed his hair, tilted his head back and performed CPR. He began to choke up and breathe as paramedics and police arrived.
Now, she said she often hears people in nearby tents at night yelling for naloxone, a medication used to reverse the effects of opioids and stop an overdose. With three boxes of the medicine from the van stacked underneath her chin, she said: “You wouldn’t believe what goes on here at night.”
The crisis has made this road a focus for support services like Hamilton’s. He passed out socks and jeans to the people gathering around. He says his efforts in the field are working: More people are trusting them and signing up for treatment. He tries not to focus on the political noise that comes with confronting addiction, focusing instead on the next person he can speak with, the next person he can help around the van on streets like Hunnell.
“There’s no place I’d rather work,” Hamilton said while bursting with laughter. “I love you guys!”
But now, he sees the scourge of fentanyl daily. Again and again, people are dying, he said.
“It’s a pandemic,” he said. “It’s hard, because you know it’s preventable. We’re living proof. Because we’re all clean and sober,” he added.
Maybe all you proverty pimps, enablers and government supporters should read this:
Another quote from the article:
"We also make it very clear that we don't tolerate encampments along our sidewalks, and we don't tolerate other code violations such as being drunk in public or urinating in public or defecating in public," Bailey said. "We just simply don't tolerate these basic code violations. What ends up happening is an individual either chooses to get help or they end up leaving."
Please take note of the letter after this mayors name.
Paying survivors like Mr Hamilton to provide these wrap-around services to our homeless seems like a good approach.
I wonder if anyone will compare the benefits and costs of the "Just say no" policies to the current decriminalization attitude? It might be important to compare death rates, incarceration rates, poverty, domestic and child abuse, educational levels, utilization of the physical and mental health care services and dependence on entitlement programs. I get that previously we spent trillions over decades with the "war on drugs" and there are advantages to not saddling people who made a few bad choices with a criminal record, but what is the net benefit or harm with our current approach?
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