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Oregon offers different paths to addiction recovery

Julia Moore/Mail Tribune Ben Spence, Addictions Recovery Center community response supervisor, and Alex Milman, certified recovery mentor, are part of an outreach team that helps people facing addiction.
Measure 110 funding variety of support services

Ben Spence started using drugs and alcohol early in life and became addicted. Back then, he said, he was a menace to the community. He racked up assault, theft and DUII charges and spent time in jail.

“I didn’t gain anything from jail,” he said. “All I gained was new connections.”

Eventually, Spence went to the Addictions Recovery Center in Medford for treatment.

“I was finally exposed to people who showed me how to live again,” he said.

Looking for a way to give back, Spence put himself through training and became a peer recovery mentor. Peer recovery mentors have battled addiction themselves. They do outreach, connect people to services and treatment, and provide living examples of how people can turn their lives around.

Spence is now the leader of an Addictions Recovery Center mobile response team of peer mentors. Their goal is to reach out to people 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Addictions Recovery Center has asked for Measure 110 grant money to sustain the team, said Lori Paris, president and chief executive officer of the center.

Approved by voters in November 2020, the decriminalization measure was sold as a move to divert people caught with small amounts of drugs such as heroin and meth from jail and into recovery. Marijuana tax revenue diverted to fund the measure hasn’t funded addiction treatment in Jackson County, but it has gone to other services such as peer mentor programs.

Addictions Recovery Center peer mentors work with people receiving addiction treatment and fan out into the community, helping police departments, hospitals, mental health providers and others who encounter people struggling with drug and alcohol use. Many of the mentors know what it’s like to be homeless or to suffer drug withdrawal because they’ve been through it themselves.

“You can throw money at additional counselors, but without someone to relate to and present recovery as a viable option for them, it won’t be effective,” Spence said.

He said everyone is different and has a different path to recovery.

“It starts by building a relationship. What do they want? What does recovery look like for them? Sometimes seeking substance use treatment is not at the top of their list, because they’re just trying to survive,” Spence said.

He said peer recovery mentors have to have patience and a gradual approach. They can connect people to safe places to sleep at night, showers, food and medical care to tackle their physical health problems and get medication to ease drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

“Hopefully along the way, people will become ready for recovery if they experience something they can connect with and they can find a way to a better life,” Spence said.

He said funding to make being a peer recovery mentor a viable career is priceless.

With the help of Measure 110 funding, Spence said, the community is coming together to provide wraparound services to help those dealing with addiction.

Paris, the head of Addictions Recovery Center, said a major goal of the Measure 110 funding approach is to create networks of services in communities across the state.

She said the center isn’t seeking money through Measure 110 for residential or outpatient addiction treatment, even though those services are chronically underfunded because of low Medicaid reimbursement rates from the government.

Wherever the money comes from, Paris said, Oregon needs to boost residential treatment beds, medical detox beds and all types of housing, from urban campgrounds to permanent housing.

But Paris said Measure 110’s focus on supportive services will help people recover.

“The biggest barrier to access to treatment is not having housing, transportation and child care. It’s exciting to make sure people can get whatever they need. They are matched to the services they need,” she said.

Help through housing

The local nonprofit Rogue Retreat got early Measure 110 funding to keep operating its Kelly Shelter and urban campground in Medford. The shelter offers 64 beds, while the urban campground provides a place for homeless people to pitch tents.

“What we’ve noticed is that when you put a roof over somebody’s head, they tend to take less drugs. They don’t need as much alcohol or drugs to cope as they might need when they have no hope,” said Rogue Retreat Executive Director Chad McComas.

“When you’re on the streets, you don’t have much hope, and so a lot of people turn to substances to give them a little glimmer of being OK.”

He said homeless people can turn their attention to other needs once they aren’t worried about where they’re going to sleep at night, go to the bathroom or get a meal.

“They can start thinking, ‘Maybe I should deal with this addiction issue. Maybe I should get some help,’” he said.

McComas said time in jail and prison has helped some people overcome drug and alcohol use. But some who were ordered by the courts into treatment just started using again once they finished.

“Measure 110 is saying you can’t force anyone to get help, but if you beef up services, they may choose to get help. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” he said.

McComas said he voted against Measure 110, but he does appreciate the current focus on providing wraparound services to help people dealing with addiction.

Like others, he agreed there is a shortage of both outpatient and residential addiction treatment. While some people are waiting to get into treatment, they overdose and die. He said the community needs more child care offerings, too.

McComas said Rogue Retreat and other organizations can provide a bridge until a treatment spot opens up. Housing someone at a Rogue Retreat shelter, urban campground or tiny house with supportive services is cheaper than providing residential treatment, he noted.

Rogue Valley organizations already have strong ties, but Measure 110 is encouraging even more partnerships, McComas said.

“We have to congratulate our community for having such good networks and partnerships. It blows me away,” he said. “People come from all over the state to look at our urban campground. When they hear about our partnerships, they say, ‘I wish we had that.’”

Ultimately, McComas said, Measure 110 will provide regular funding for support services to help those with addiction.

Many nonprofits get by on a hodgepodge of grants and donations.

“It will stabilize us and other organizations so we can do what we do without being afraid it will disappear tomorrow,” he said.

Preventing overdose deaths

The spread of potent, often-deadly fentanyl in street drugs such as heroin, meth, cocaine and counterfeit pain pills has helped fuel an unprecedented wave of overdose deaths across the U.S.

During the 12-month period that ended in April 2021, there were an estimated 100,306 deaths from overdose. That’s up from 78,056 overdose deaths the year before, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

The local nonprofit Max’s Mission is on the front lines trying to prevent such deaths.

Julia Pinsky co-founded the organization after her 25-year-old son Max died of a heroin overdose in Ashland in 2013. She distributes free kits that contain easy-to-use nasal spray that reverses an overdose from fentanyl, heroin, prescription pain pills such as oxycodone and other opioids.

Early Measure 110 funding helped Max’s Mission buy a vehicle to reach three Southern Oregon counties, open an office and hire two peer recovery mentors.

“For us, it’s had a huge impact,” Pinsky said. “It made a big difference. I think it’s saved a lot of lives.”

Just in the past few months, Max’s Mission has heard of 70 overdoses that were reversed with kits it provided, she said.

In addition to distributing overdose antidote and training people how to respond when someone overdoses, Max’s Mission can refer people to treatment and other services if they ask for help, Pinsky said.

While few people are calling the statewide Measure 110 hotline to get their $100 drug possession tickets waived, and fewer still are asking for referrals to treatment when they call, people are getting help from community organizations across Oregon that got a boost from Measure 110 funding.

“We are here to keep people alive and help those who want to change what they do,” Pinsky said.

She said the rollout of Measure 110 is bound to have some problems. Although going to jail did help some addicted people, Pinsky said, jail is not the right place for most people dealing with substance use disorder. She said decriminalizing drugs without increasing support services would have been wrong.

“We feel that ultimately it’s a pretty radical thing, but it’s great. It’s going to take a while for it to roll out and to see what effects it has. But definitely we’ve saved more lives than we could have imagined,” Pinsky said.

Like Max’s Mission, the Birch Grove Health Center in Medford also got early Measure 110 funding to give out free drug overdose antidote kits.

“Substances laced with fentanyl can be very dangerous, and people don’t know it’s there,” said Birch Grove Collaboration Director Stephanie Lyon.

The health center has given out hundreds of doses of antidote since March and has heard of the medication being used to save lives, she said.

Birch Grove Health Center provides addiction treatment, including medication to curb drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms so it’s easier for people to quit using. It didn’t receive Measure 110 funding to pay for treatment directly, but it did get money to offer gift cards to reward people for taking their medication and coming to appointments, Lyon said.

The health center also got Measure 110 money for a behavioral support specialist to go out on the Bear Creek Greenway with the Medford Police Department’s Livability Team, she said.

The Livability Team tackles problems at places like the greenway, a recreational path that has long been a hotspot for illegal camping, drug use, fires and crime. The team refers homeless people to services and helps clear the greenway.

Lyon said the behavioral support specialist reaches out to people who don’t normally seek out addiction treatment. The specialist can take time to build rapport and trust, then refer people to supportive services such as shelter, health care and addiction treatment.

Lyon said there is a shortage of residential addiction treatment and detox services. Those do have other funding sources, although not enough. But she said Measure 110 is helping to pay for other support services that didn’t have stable funding.

“From my understanding, they’re doing a great job at the state level using money for things that were not getting paid for. They’re being good stewards and making sure they’re using it for services that usually go unfunded,” Lyon said.

She said Measure 110 is encouraging even more partnerships among local organizations that provide housing, child care, health care, addiction treatment and other services. With another round of funding about to be distributed across the state, those efforts will get an even bigger boost.

“This is just the beginning. I think there are going to be a lot of creative opportunities coming our way,” Lyon said.

This article is part two of a three-part series. To read part one, see www.mailtribune.com/top-stories/2022/01/07/oregons-drug-decriminalization-measure-fails-to-fund-treatment/.

To read part three, see www.mailtribune.com/top-stories/2022/01/08/drug-use-comes-with-few-penalties-in-oregon/.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.