Syringe box links mother, ex-addict son
Noelle Zimel thought she'd never see her son again after she gave him an ultimatum: leave and don't come back unless you're clean of heroin.
At that moment, Drew McVey told her not to plan on seeing him again. He walked down the driveway, opting for a future of drug addiction and homelessness in Portland.
McVey's now been clean for going on eight years, and his mother, a metal artist, recently was hired by Multnomah County to help upgrade and design a syringe dropbox for intravenous drug users along the Eastbank Esplanade.
While she works to repair the vandalized box, the two have slowly mended their broken relationship.
The box is part of the county's Healthy Streets program, started in 2016 as a pilot project to help manage the publicly discarded syringes in the downtown area associated with homeless campsites. However, needles have continued to pile up downtown and elsewhere in the city — a symptom of the exploding opioid addiction crisis, which in turn fuels homelessness.
While Multnomah County takes on a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids, it recently budgeted $30,000 to add more syringe collection boxes. Two already exist on the waterfront, and Zimel was tasked by the county to improve the one that was damaged.
She's working to make the box more approachable for addicts. Painted green, it features metal cutouts — silhouettes of Portland's cityscape.
Previously, it was a bold, industrial black metal box with a red biohazard sign.
Other syringe boxes are being considered for sites near Montavilla Park and in Lents.
More than 3 million syringes were exchanged via Multnomah County and Outside In's needle exchange program in 2015, a 59 percent increase since 2012, according to the 2016 Tri-County Region Opioid Trends report. More than 50 percent of clients report having been addicted first to prescription drugs like OxyContin.
Multnomah County observes 87 new clients using the county needle exchange program every month. According to county Health Department officials, 45 percent of the needle exchange's clients reported being homeless from July through December 2016.
A dark road
Growing up in Southeast Portland's Eastmoreland neighborhood, McVey didn't suffer massive childhood trauma, live in extreme poverty or some other tumultuous scenario that might drive one to drugs. Both he and his mother say life was pretty ordinary. Dad was a police officer, Noelle was a stay-at-home mom.
But he started experimenting at around 13 years old. OxyCodone "was huge" at the time and easily accessible for him and his friends, he says. It became harder to get, however, once officials caught on to the trend.
"They made some of the pills harder to abuse. And because heroin's pretty much the same thing, it became the alternative. It was like a party drug, which is crazy," says McVey, now 30. "Even in high school people were socially doing heroin, smoking heroin at parties."
Family, including his mother, repeatedly tried to help him, to which he reacted with lies, manipulation and stealing for drug money.
"I pretty much would steal anything that wasn't nailed down. So she was tired of that. I ended up pretty much just taking a bunch of money from her," McVey says.
Zimel at first couldn't see how bad it was until McVey was far gone.
"I think that's why I wasn't aware either, because there was no drug abuse or alcoholism in my family," she says. "I thought he was only smoking pot in high school — that it was a phase."
But once family members were being pitted against one another because of McVey's behavior, that's when the ultimatum came. And then homelessness and criminal charges.
Homeless in Portland
McVey still owns the tent he'd sleep in near train tracks in the woods off of Holgate in Southeast Portland, although the best place to sleep, he says, was park bathrooms because they were "open and dry."
He'd often go to Lents Park and other areas "from Lents all the way down to Milwaukie and Powell."
McVey speculates as to why that area is such a hotbed for homelessness.
"If you're in an area where there's a lot of commotion going on, you're not going to be a sore thumb sticking out," he says. "That's where the majority of people were using."
He said he'd never travel too far out of the neighborhood, always needing enough drugs to "keep me well."
"It became a life of all I did was to get more. I would just wait to get dope sick," he says.
Living out on the streets, he says "everyone had some sort of issue.
"A lot of it was addiction. Some of it was mental health. Most people I knew were homeless by choice. ... At the time I thought I was just doing what I wanted to do," he says. "People were reaching their hands out but I didn't want to live by their rules, which was not to use drugs. I was really trying to figure out a way that I could keep using without any consequences, but I could never do that."
Although McVey didn't actively use syringes — he smoked heroin — he says most of his friends did. Some of his friends and those he works with in recovery programs have HIV and hepatitis C.
"I've seen people use needles that have no idea where it came from and sharpening it on a matchbook," he says.
To him, using a needle crossed a level of shame that he couldn't bear. But he thinks some of that has changed — that intravenous drug use has become more commonplace.
"It's not uncommon now to see someone shooting, whereas five to seven years ago, you were doing it in the bushes or whatever," he says. "It wasn't as acceptable."
McVey actually has similar feelings about homelessness — concerned that there's not enough deterrence in Portland, indicating that shame itself may give someone the will needed to change their situation.
First day clean
Like many folks who fall into homelessness after turning to hard drugs like heroin, McVey endured troubles with the legal system, picking up charges left and right, whether for theft or traffic citations. A the time he always thought he was the victim; that the drugs weren't a reason for anything that was happening.
"I always thought it was something else ... not because I was loaded," McVey says.
He continued camping out during the dry months. Then in mid-October 2009, he found himself in a bathroom withdrawing off of heroin, with a warrant out for his arrest.
"I woke up in a bathroom near the Aladdin Theater, and I was going to meet my drug dealer, and I got caught on the MAX with no ticket," McVey says. "Because I had a warrant, they arrested me. And that was my first day clean."
Following that incident, he was afforded a lot of options for rehab.
"I never knew of anybody to get clean, because once they did, they were gone — I figured they must be dead. I never had an awareness of how to do it until I met my probation officer through jail and figured it'd be something I'd give a shot," he says.
Relationships built back up
His relationship with his mother became extremely tough during his years of drug use. She was faced with many of the difficult decisions parents face when their child becomes unmanageable — do you keep giving them what they need to get by or cut off ties so they might hit rock bottom and learn?
Zimel saw that her son needed to hit rock bottom.
But now that he's back, the two are close again.
"We kind of met each other for the first time again. I was like, so what kind of music do you like? It was a little awkward at first, but as time goes on, every step he's taken has been exciting," Zimel says.
She even has consulted him for advice on the syringe box — why or how people might steal from it or vandalize it, so she can improve the metal work.
But there's a deeper emotional connection because of her son's story.
"People are actually using and touching this box — and what's going on in their lives? I'm a mom. These people have mothers," Zimel says. "I wanted it to be a more positive box than the one that looks kind of shaming.
"I can visualize people actually using the box — and hopefully one day, they won't need to use that box anymore, you know?"
McVey now gives recovery talks at Tigard Recovery Center, and still participates in a 12-step program.
Although he's nearly eight years clean, he knows that relapse is real — and can happen easily. He now has his own business doing sewer and drain repair with a partner who's also in recovery.
"They put a bunch of boulders where I used to sleep under I-205 on Foster. I go over there sometimes for home inspections and stuff, and I'll see it. I just get reminiscent," he says. Officials put the boulders there to prevent camping.
Though McVey has mostly been relaxed talking about his journey, he still shows a moment of concern, grabbing his stomach as he thinks about being homeless and on heroin again.
"Complete abstinence is the only solution for me. It's a scary feeling of how close I could be to using and destroying it all," he says.
The syringe box is just one way of giving back — and acts as a conduit to strengthen his bond with his mother.
"Being able to be on the other side of (addiction), and being a part of the solution rather than the problem helps our relationship grow," McVey says.
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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