Normal families struggle with abnormal lives
A mom grapples with her son’s addiction problems in a state that’s ranked on the bottom nationwide in access to treatment
Kelly Hernandez drives around Portland on April 24, looking for her son. She didn’t find him that day. (Sarah Yeoman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
At least once a week, Kelly Hernandez tries to find her son.
The search in Portland always starts the same: feeling tense and anxious, with questions running through her head.
“What will he look like?”
“Is he well fed?”
“Will I see him?”
It’s Easter Sunday. A yellow bag sits on the back floor of her SUV, carrying deodorant, sanitary wipes, chocolate Easter eggs and cigarettes.
His smoking is the least of her worries.
Her 27-year-old son Trevor is among the hundreds of homeless people in Portland, and like many, he’s addicted to the blue fake oxycodone pills flooding the city.
“He spends most of his time looking for drugs,” she tells a Capital Chronicle reporter with her.
It’s difficult to be a parent of a child with an addiction on the street at a time when many residents are angry about homelessness and crime, she says.
Oregon has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to addiction services and promised to improve treatment but most of that money has yet to be spent and planned programs have yet to be rolled out while the state’s drug addiction problem is growing – and becoming deadlier.
Hernandez shared her account because she wants the public to recognize addiction as a disease. She wants people to know that her son comes from a good family. She was a stay-at-home mom who raised three children. She’s close to all of them.
Mood/personality shifts Behavioral changes Source: DrugFree.org
Signs of drug addiction
He’s part of a small community that knows where to get drugs. They know how often to take a pill to feel normal. They know what stores let them steal merchandise and walk out, and they know where to sleep – on a friend’s couch or in tents.
Trevor’s tent is tucked into a wooded area hidden from the street. He stays in it when he wants to be alone.
Usually with hip hop on the radio, she drives the same route in Portland, always along the MAX line. Maybe she’ll see him at a stop.
This day she pulls into a parking lot where they’ve agreed to meet but he’s not there.
She retraces the route, then returns to the lot.
Parked, she shares family photos of her son. In one, he’s carrying a younger sister in his arms. Another captures their two faces smiling broadly.
“Trevor was such a cute little boy,” Hernandez says. “Happy and chunky. He weighed 25 pounds when he was almost six months old.”
The drugs have taken a toll. He’s thin and rot has crept into his teeth.
She starts to cry but wipes away the tears.
“Trevor doesn’t like to see me cry,” she says.
Suddenly, he appears beside the car. He’s about 5-foot-10 and wears a light-green hoodie, with his black jeans low, showing red boxer shorts. Trevor smiles impishly and slides into the back seat.
“Cool,” he says, spotting the cigarettes, and pops a chocolate egg into his mouth.
They drive, chattering about family affairs – one of his two sisters is trying to teach her cat Boo to hike with her. Hernandez talks about a coming wedding, and they laugh about “The Office,” a favorite TV show. He suggests they go to McDonalds.
That’s part of their meetup ritual.
Addiction runs high on the streets
In many ways, Trevor is typical of people on the streets of Portland.
Nearly 70% are white, according to Multnomah County’s point-in-time count in 2019, its latest biennial tally. It identified about 2,000 unsheltered people in the county. A majority, like Trevor, are between 25 and 54 years old. About half are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
A federal survey published in February ranked Oregon as having the worst drug addiction rate in the country and the least access to treatment. Emergency rooms have seen an uptick in young people on drugs over the past two years, and overdose deaths have soared.
“In 2020, we had 472 opioid overdoses in the state of Oregon, and in 2021, from January to August, we had 473,” said Dr. Sarah Leitz, chief of addiction at Kaiser Permanente Northwest. In March, two Portland teenagers died after consuming what police believe were the same pills that Trevor takes. They’re laced with fentanyl, which is at least 50 times more potent than morphine.
“Adolescents are often experimenting with different substances, and because fentanyl is so potent, it doesn’t really lend itself to experimentation because one pill can lead to a deadly overdose,” Leitz said.
Trevor says he’s not likely to overdose because his body is habituated to the substance.
“If you are someone who uses a large amount of opioids every day, this may be a very tolerable amount,” said Dr. Rob Hendrickson, director of the Oregon Poison Center at Oregon Health & Science University.
The pills are short acting, lasting two to three hours before withdrawal symptoms start with joint and skin pain.
“It’s incredibly uncomfortable,” Hendrickson said. “You get diarrhea and vomiting, agitation and incredible cravings to take more.”
Trevor has to take about six a day.
“That’s a minimum,” he says.
He’s been addicted for about five years.
Trevor would like to get clean, he says, but not today. His feet ache from walking and a broken tooth kept him up all night. He has Medicaid, which covers dental care. Hernandez promises to get him an appointment soon.
They drive through McDonalds and he orders his favorite – a Big Mac. Then they drive to a friend’s house and he pops out again. Hernandez doesn’t any questions.
“The fact that he’s meeting us today is huge,” she says.
Trevor talks freely about his situation. He wants others to know what it’s like to have this disease and face the stigma, even from some providers.
He wants to warn others away from his path which he says will likely land him in jail.
From prescription to addiction
At 19, Trevor contracted meningitis, which causes severe headaches. His doctor prescribed Percocet to dampen the pain. He liked the euphoric high associated with opioids and later bought the fake oxycodone pills on the street.
He kept his life together working roofing jobs and leased a house, which he shared with roommates.
But the pills started to consume his life. At 22, he told Hernandez he needed help.
She was stunned. She thought he’d been partying too much. She knew nothing about the fake blue pills.
“I didn’t even know it was an opiate,” Hernandez says.
She suggested they find treatment but he said he wanted to try to kick them himself.
Within 18 months, he was homeless.
He lived in his car but ended up on the streets after selling his two Jeeps and a truck. Hernandez says Trevor has maintained some of his values – he’s never stolen from her.
“He treats me with respect and kindness,” Hernandez says. “There is still a bit of him in there.”
She won’t let him live at home while he’s on drugs. She has two younger daughters. But she supports him as best she can.
Once, he tried to quit on his own.
“That was hell. It was the worst thing I have ever seen in my life,” she says.
He broke into sweats, vomited incessantly, twitched and kicked, cried and moaned. He begged her to take him to Portland to find drugs.
“He ended up walking out of here,” Hernandez says.
Finding treatment is difficult. Hernandez has spent hours on the phone, trying to locate a facility with an opening. If she finds one, she has to fetch him and show up. They won’t reserve a spot over the phone. He’s been in and out of detox about six times, Hernandez says. He’s also been in a 30-day residential program. But he relapsed.
“It’s not long enough,” Hernandez says.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends 90 days of in-patient treatment to start.
“Most patients need long term or repeated care to stop using completely and recover their lives,” according to the institute. “Addiction is a chronic disease.”
On the streets, Trevor’s day revolves around drugs.
The pills used to cost $30 apiece. He switched to heroin at one point because it’s cheaper. But he didn’t like needles, and pill prices have dropped. Now they cost $5 to $10 each, he says.
Hernandez suspects the decrease is related to the passage of Measure 110 in November 2020. It decriminalized the possession of drugs for personal use. Though sold to voters as a way to get those with a substance use disorder treatment, it uses marijuana tax dollars to fund harm reduction and recovery support.
“It was never going to fund treatment,” said Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers, an advocacy group for prevention and treatment of addiction.
Adolescents are often experimenting with different substances, and because fentanyl is so potent, it doesn't really lend itself to experimentation because one pill can lead to a deadly overdose. – Dr. Sarah Leitz, chief of addiction at Kaiser Permanente Northwest
Adolescents are often experimenting with different substances, and because fentanyl is so potent, it doesn't really lend itself to experimentation because one pill can lead to a deadly overdose.
– Dr. Sarah Leitz, chief of addiction at Kaiser Permanente Northwest
Trevor knows which stores have a “no touch” policy where store employees are directed not to physically stop a thief. That makes it easy to walk out with stolen goods. Employees that do detect the shoplifting sometimes snap photos but Trevor wears a hoodie and Covid mask.
“It’s helpful for boosting,” he says. “Oregon can’t use facial recognition to prosecute.”
He has an arrangement with a security guard at one high-end retailer downtown that he asked not be named. If Trevor avoids it during the week, the guard turns a blind eye to his theft on the weekends. He even holds the door open when Trevor walks out with an armful of merchandise.
“How do you go from that to go back to paying for stuff?” Hernandez wonders.
Trevor takes note of the retail prices – he tries to sell goods for half of that.
“It’s pretty easy to find someone to buy it,” he says.
The buyers are usually people in recovery, he says.
Trevor has a new tent, air mattress and propane heater. He sometimes uses candles for heat and taps into a friend’s generator for power. He’s set up.
“It’s like everything – you get better at it,” he says.
Waiting for him to be ready
Hernandez has learned that the road to recovery is usually a jagged affair, with off ramps along the way. She’s also learned that she cannot control Trevor’s addiction. He has to want treatment for it to work.
While waiting for that time, she carries an overdose medication in her car. Naloxone, often sold under the brand name Narcan, reverses an opioid overdose within minutes. Pharmacists can prescribe it in Oregon, and people don’t need special training to buy it.
The other day Hernandez gave Trevor more naloxone.
“He says he carries it all the time. He says he used that on most of his friends,” she says.
I’ll be there when he’s ready. – Kelly Hernandez whose son, Trevor, is addicted to fake oxycodone pills
I’ll be there when he’s ready.
– Kelly Hernandez whose son, Trevor, is addicted to fake oxycodone pills
“I gave him a pack of cigarettes for each shot,” she says.
She’s now in therapy to help her cope with the worry and pain. She takes life day by day while remaining connected to her son.
“I’ll be there when he’s ready,” she says.
She’s also met other moms who have children with a drug addiction.
“We drive around, and we try to find our kids,” Hernandez says.
Many have above average intelligence, she says. “They have to be to survive out there.”
Trevor has two girlfriends, and they look out for each other. They, too, come from good families, Hernandez says. They played sports, enjoyed family gatherings and helped their community.
“They’re someone’s kid,” Hernandez says. “They’re loved.”
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