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With Measure 110 gutted, Eastern Oregon harm reduction group remains undeterred

EOCIL workers Sindy Campos, left, and Lupita Castillo wait for a train to pass while doing harm reduction work in The Dalles, Ore., on March 20, 2024.
Antonio Sierra
EOCIL workers Sindy Campos, left, and Lupita Castillo wait for a train to pass while doing harm reduction work in The Dalles, Ore., on March 20, 2024.

The Eastern Oregon Center for Independent Living keeps its focus on treating the root causes of addiction

Harm reduction in Pendleton sometimes begins with a folding table in a parking lot.

On a recent March day, Crescencia Witherspoon and Brandy Anderson of the Eastern Oregon Center for Independent Living offered harm reduction supplies at a Salvation Army center in downtown Pendleton, where the charity serves a hot lunch daily. The foot traffic was brisk and EOCIL tried to catch patrons before they left with their food.

Witherspoon and Anderson offered clean needles, overdose reversing medication and condoms to anyone who wanted them. Witherspoon took down personal information but anonymized some identifying details. She said EOCIL wants to make sure their clients aren’t identified if they face a court subpoena.

Some people took the supplies and went but others stayed and chatted. For those who stayed, EOCIL staff asked about other things they needed. Over the span of an hour, Anderson and Witherspoon gathered requests for housing, mental health services and help getting veteran identification. Witherspoon said family members often contact EOCIL with messages for their unhoused relatives and staff will pass it along if they see them.

This is the essence of harm reduction, Witherspoon said. By providing people with some tools for survival, she said, EOCIL has a chance at establishing the kind of trust that could change the trajectory of addiction.

“They’re receiving connection, they’re receiving education, they’re receiving resources,” she said. “Sometimes they’re getting food from our food pantry. These are the same people who now have months, days, years, and sobriety because they were able to connect with a human being who didn’t judge them.”

Witherspoon didn’t have any experience in addiction treatment when she started doing harm reduction work. She was working at a bank when the pandemic shut down her branch, leading to a friend recommending she apply to EOCIL.

But she’s now a believer in harm reduction, a practice that epitomizes the spirit of Measure 110, the 2020 law that decriminalized drugs and directed funding toward mental health and addiction treatment.

EOCIL harm reduction director Crescencia Witherspoon stands in the organization's low-barrier transitional housing in Pendleton, Ore. on Feb. 29, 2024.
Antonio Sierra
EOCIL harm reduction director Crescencia Witherspoon stands in the organization's low-barrier transitional housing in Pendleton, Ore. on Feb. 29, 2024.

While Oregon lawmakers ended the state’s experiment with drug decriminalization earlier this year, the pipeline of funding created under Measure 110 remains, sending millions of dollars across the state to get people out of destructive cycles of addiction and into housing.

Even though the idea of harm reduction under Measure 110 remains unpopular in Eastern Oregon — the majority of voters rejected the measure in 2020, and many regional politicians praised its gutting — EOCIL staff members believe they can carry on its intent. The group intends to continue using Measure 110 funding to offer harm reduction services and low-barrier housing, even after drug possession becomes a criminal offense again in September.

Whatever scrutiny they may attract, EOCIL said it has a track record of success, especially in a region where the safety net for addiction treatment is either thin or nonexistent.

Detox facility

Just weeks before the Legislature agreed to start rolling back Measure 110, state Rep. Greg Smith — a Republican representing a large chunk of Eastern Oregon — held a town hall in Boardman to gather local opinion.

A self-described “concerned citizen” used her time to spotlight the unhoused people who lived in her Hermiston neighborhood. She said she didn’t let her children go outside because there were drug users living in a local park’s baseball dugout.

“When you’re high, you can’t decide what’s right for you,” she said. “You need to go to jail.”

The woman didn’t want Oregon to return to its pre-Measure 110 status quo because she felt like there were too many people “in crisis,” but she especially disliked the idea of harm reduction, “a crime all in its own.”

But it was harm reduction, and specifically the services offered by EOCIL, that Marco Carrillo credits for saving his life.

Carrillo started smoking cannabis at age 9, using methamphetamine at 13 and considered himself an addict by the time he was 19, according to EOCIL’s “Voices in Action” podcast. At 35, he was resolute when he entered a rehab facility in Pendleton, but nervous about what would happen to his life when he left the facility and lost the structure it had provided him.

Carrillo was born and raised in Ontario, the son of a social worker mother and a father who worked in the fields. He said he grew up in a stable environment, but there “was not a lot of love” at home. He started running with gangs as he grew older, both selling and using drugs.

He spent much of his teens and 20s in and out of jail, getting arrested in Ontario or on the other side of the Snake River in Payette, Idaho. Carrillo said incarceration did not cut off his access to drugs. He smuggled in and sold weed, meth and heroin behind bars.

“It’s no difference,” he said. “The only thing that’s different about doing that out here and being in there is that you’re behind the cell. That’s it.”

EOCIL behavior specialist Carrie Luke, working on the other side of the bars, saw the ways drugs slipped into prisons. Prior to working in mental health, Luke worked for 10 years in the state Department of Corrections.

“What I largely saw over the years was people recidivating at higher rates once they were incarcerated for substance use-type crimes,” she said. “It’s sending people to criminal school. It’s ineffective. It is a complete failure.”

Luke attributed Oregon’s struggles with drug addiction not to Measure 110 but to federal cuts to mental health services that began in the 1980s. As federal and state governments poured more resources into law enforcement and prisons as a response to drug epidemics, the money for behavioral health shrank.

Drug decriminalization simply laid bare what’s existed for a long time, Luke said. But now, drug use was happening out in the open instead of behind the walls of a prison.

“When it was criminalized, it’s easy to sweep under the rug,” she said. “It’s easy to forget about. It’s easy to overlook what’s happening in the darkness. And I think this brings it to light.”

When Carrillo tired of the toll drugs were taking on his life, he looked to EOCIL for help. Carrillo had been using their clean needle program and one day last fall he showed up looking to get clean.

EOCIL arranged for a ride to a detox center in Pendleton the same day he made his request. After a week in detox, he found a bed at a rehabilitation facility. He said he spent the following weeks taking classes, going to counseling and cutting hair, his “gift from God.” He was diagnosed with a mental disorder and started properly medicating, a move he thinks would’ve helped him achieve sobriety years ago if he had started earlier.

Several months into his recovery, Carrillo said his family was one of the main reasons he is motivated to stay sober today. EOCIL and harm reduction specialist Amador Perez saved his life, he said, and he now wants to become a bilingual drug counselor to serve the region’s Spanish speakers. He felt like he could make an impact with drug users because he’s lived that life.

“I let God drive my car,” he said. “Because I know when I drive, I wreck.”

Transitional housing

Before EOCIL started turning it into transitional housing, the downtown Pendleton home it bought had a reputation.

“It was actually apartments that somebody had for years and years and years and really didn’t put any money into,” EOCIL housing services director Jeff Williams said. ”They were really rough. It was kind of where people that used substances rented because it was so cheap.”

This housing represents one of the primary investments from the money EOCIL received through Measure 110. EOCIL’s vision is to turn the dilapidated home into a place of recovery, without drawing a hard line about whether their tenants still use drugs.

When it’s completed this spring, EOCIL will offer four units right next to the nonprofit’s Pendleton office, where residents can continue to access the organization’s harm reduction and mental health services.

There are a small number of other transitional housing units and shelter beds in Pendleton, but EOCIL is unique in allowing residents to still use drugs while staying in housing. There will be rules: no long-term guests, no parties, no regular calls for the police. But drug use and the occasional fallout that entails, like repairable damage to the property, won’t be a dealbreaker.

EOCIL Director of Housing Services Jeff Williams looks out the door of the organization's low-barrier transitional housing as the home is being renovated.
Antonio Sierra
EOCIL Director of Housing Services Jeff Williams looks out the door of the organization's low-barrier transitional housing as the home is being renovated.

Before they offered their own housing, Williams, who is in recovery himself, said the group sometimes struggled to place clients in existing housing because of rigid requirements. He said housing, whether a tenant is sober or not, can provide a person with the self-esteem they need to seek recovery, or at the very least, live well with their addiction.

“Clients feel they don’t deserve it,” he said. “It’s because they’ve been beat down by society so bad that they don’t feel like they’re worth anything. Society looks at them as an eyesore in the community.”

EOCIL is going all-in on expanding low-barrier housing in the region. The group is also creating similar apartments in Ontario.

Demand is already high for the Pendleton apartments, too. As of late February, Williams said EOCIL’s waiting list already had 23 names on it.

Harm reduction table

The end of drug decriminalization isn’t likely to make harm reduction work in Eastern Oregon any easier. Outreach efforts in The Dalles have only gotten more difficult since St. Vincent de Paul shut down its ministry building.

The Catholic charity provided meals, supplies and other services to the unhoused at a central location for nearly four decades. But The Dalles city government sued St. Vincent de Paul last year over nuisance violations related to dozens of arrests near its building, spurring the organization to shut down to avoid a legal battle. The charity remained closed as of mid-April.

St. Vincent de Paul’s services had been a boon to EOCIL, which regularly set up a harm reduction table at a nearby park during meal days. Without a central point of contact, EOCIL harm reduction specialist Lupita Castillo and housing navigator Sindy Campos spend a lot of time in the car trying to meet a clientele spread far and wide across the city.

On a cloudy March day, Castillo and Campos parked their car at a dead end street as Interstate 84 thrummed to the east. The pair hiked down a goat trail, crossed a live set of train tracks and walked into an encampment in the shadow of a new Google data center construction project. A web of walking paths connected a neighborhood of tents and shacks. There weren’t many residents there that day. Castillo said a woman in the encampment called Mom used to act as a leader for the community, but after her home burned down in a propane fire, she found a permanent housing opportunity and moved out. The area now feels like it has a lot less structure, she said.

Castillo and Campos chatted with some residents, passed by some homes burnt down by propane fire accidents and picked up any used needles they spotted. Later in the day, they scanned roadsides, parking lots, strip malls and other areas where their clients might stay.

Castillo said the roots of her career in harm reduction started three years ago when a friend died after mistaking fentanyl for OxyContin. And then more friends started falling.

“All the people around us were dying and there was nothing that we could do to stop it. We were just watching them die,” she said.

When another friend died from an overdose the day she got out of jail, Castillo decided to get involved in advocacy. She organized an overdose awareness walk and started advocating to bring harm reduction to The Dalles. EOCIL hired her to do that work full-time in 2023.

On the day they were out, the work was slow. It was hard to find people who they knew were out there and needed assistance.

Castillo said even on days when her work is challenging, she keeps in mind a very basic measurement of success for the people they do reach.

“Keeping them from dying,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

EOCIL believes it’s saving lives, and even if drugs are likely to remain criminalized in Oregon for a long time to come, staffers said they have no intent of slowing down the progress they’ve already made.

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Antonio Sierra is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting.