STREET LIVES: Portlandian's dopesick blues
They call him Utah on the street.
Chris Bennett, fentanyl consumer and occasional trader, came to Portland from Salt Lake City almost a year ago. He flies a sign reading "HOMELESS NOT WORTHLESS" on the concrete median on Northwest 16th Avenue at the Glisan Street traffic light, near the Mission Theater. He sleeps in a tent at Northwest Couch Street and Ninth beside the North Park Blocks, in the village that was assembled when campers were swept west from Old Town towards Powell's City of Books.
Utah sleeps alone in his tent and manages his day with the primary activity of begging for money to get high. Or not so much high anymore, just to stave off the dope sickness of withdrawal, he says. He has gone from 170 pounds to 120 pounds on his latest opioid jag, which sometimes includes heroin but is mostly about getting enough fentanyl pills (he calls them "blues") to crush up and smoke off foil.
Now 27, his habit started when he was 15.
"My dad introduced me to heroin and meth 12 years ago," he said. "In order for me to be considered his son, I had to try it. He said, 'You have to do this.' I was keeping it from everybody, it was a secret life. And my parents were always wondering why I'm freaking out all the time."
He's been addicted ever since.
Bennett's story is a complex tale of self-pity, hopelessness and stoic acceptance. At times, it plays like a country and western song.
"I moved out here with the wife and son and a dog, and, just to say, the wife and son are gone, and the dog was stolen from my tent," he said. "So, it's kind of hard to go every day like that."
He says the petty fights on Portland streets are worse than middle school, mainly due to the number of slights that escalate to full-blown drama.
Utah lost his Australian shepherd dog when his camp mate in Tigard stole it and traded it away for 10 fentanyl pills. The new owner has driven by with the dog barking and crying in his car, tormenting Utah, he says. He used to sleep in a tent behind Fantasy Video. Now he is barred from Tigard, so he came to Old Town Portland.
A big sweep from the Greyhound Station, just before college basketball's March Madness came to town, led many to relocate to West Burnside Street.
"They just push them out, and then they come back, and they set their tents up. And then they come again take their tents," Utah said.
Does he know anyone who's ever changed their behavior based on a sweep?
"I guess some people have, but really, a lot of the people that are in this position have mental disabilities and/or are addicted to drugs," he said. "The only way of living under the influence is to live in a tent not paying rent. Because all of your money goes towards filling that gap, every day."
Utah said candidly that it is a good deal to camp downtown, to charge his phone in Starbucks or the library when he wants, get a shower, clothes or a meal. But there are hardships. In the winter, campers cope with the cold by burning rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer in a soup can, with a sock or cotton balls as a wick.
"A lot of people start it as soon as it gets dark. People go and boost (shoplift) rubbing alcohol and hand sanitizer from the grocery stores. They actually sell it to people in the tents."
Utah says many unhoused people won't go to shelters because of the rules and the schedule, often because they interfere with addiction.
"You have to be there (in the shelter) by a certain time each night and it's hard to cop or get your drugs, your fix for the night, and your wake-up, like that little fix for the morning. A lot of people try to shelter, and then they end up being dope sick overnight. I've been dependent for 13 years. It used to be heroin, now I'm addicted to fentanyl."
To him, the fentanyl feels good. "It helps wash out all the BS," referring to the daily grind of surviving on the streets. Now his whole world view has been zoomed in to a couple of things: panhandling enough money to get more drugs to get through the day, in order to get more drugs.
Fentanyl is usually talked about as being "100 times stronger" than morphine, causing overdoses for inexperienced users. Utah is sanguine about that.
"A lot of us that end up dying, they've not built a tolerance to opiates like heroin. I was doing heroin that had fentanyl in it for months before I even knew. I went from $20 worth barely getting me (high) to $5 worth getting me Narcanned (revived by the nasal spray antidote)."
He added "I honestly haven't been able to do enough to kill me. I've tried. Four, five, six Narcans later I came back."
He had a $30-per-hour concrete job in Utah when his wife said they should move to Portland. He found a job with a roofing company in Canby but had "one little slip" and was fired for not showing up, on account of illness. He says it wasn't dope sickness, he was sober at the time. Unemployment led to family friction and his wife left him, taking their son but leaving the dog. He went back on the drugs and became homeless.
His stepdad tried to buy him a Greyhound ticket, but Utah would not leave his dog behind. Portland is home for now. He's relatively clean and speaks plainly.
"Oregon, they do have a lot of resources, like Transition Projects Inc. They give you lists for the shelters. They'll tell you where you can get food. They'll give you showers and they have laundry and they'll give you hygiene stuff. I don't spend any money on anything. It all goes towards drugs."
His phone was stolen when it was charging at Transition Projects. How is life without it? "My mom misses me. I had a tablet because when you get food stamps you can get a free tablet. It got stolen from me."
His friend stole his third free tablet. The previous two, he traded for drugs. How much does a tablet buy?
"Not even a dime ($10 worth)."
Being in a tent is hard. "I've had people come into my tent and steal my drugs while I was sleeping. Smoke my drugs, actually, while I was in the tent. Smoke my fentanyl powder."
Does he want to get clean and have a straight life?
"I think all of us do. But it's kind of hard, because I've accepted my drug addiction, accepted the fact that I love opiates, and especially heroin. And I've accepted the fact that this could just be it: Standing here with my sign making 20 bucks to $100 a day, going and getting ripped off or getting my fix. I mean, I want better than that. But really, it's just…."
He found staying sober and well didn't make a difference when times got hard, and he lost his wife, son and dog. "I'd rather be under the influence of a drug that actually makes me not give a hell," he said, retracting a curse. "Because if I can live in a tent for free, I guess I'm gonna. Yeah, I don't have to worry about the bills and the courts and all that crap."
He has warrants for petty drug charges in Salt Lake City. "So out here in Oregon, a lot of the drugs are basically legal or decriminalized. In Salt Lake you'd be in prison for doing these things."
He's the second oldest of eight siblings and step siblings.
"I asked my parents if I could move back and they said, 'Yeah, you can move back to Salt Lake, but you're going to be living in a tent still.' My parents are great. I think I treated them terribly."
Passing motorists mostly give $5 and $10 bills. His profits have ranged from being out all day for $20 to making $200 in half a day. It's like gambling; he has to judge when to quit. "You can't just keep rolling the dice. Am I going to stay on here for hours, when I could have went and picked up (drugs)?"
He has no regular fentanyl dealer. On the street he asks for "fetty powder." "Right now it's all garbage. If you get the good stuff, you're paying 20 bucks per point (a 10th of a gram). I have to smoke about a gram of fentanyl powder right now, in order to be OK for the evening. I have to have go and fly (the sign) again before it gets dark so I can make more."
Mornings are not good for begging; people are busy with their coffee and trying to get to work to fumble with change. But he considers it a clean job.
"I only sell a little bit of drugs, to buy more drugs for myself, that's the only other hustle I have. I take care of myself, I don't go down there with trades and items and struggle," he says, meaning reselling stolen goods.
Common stolen items include bikes, electronics, and meat — hence all the sidewalk barbecuing visible downtown right now.
"I came out here and told myself I was going to be honest with everybody and treat them proper. I've done a lot of lying, a lot of stealing and doing people wrong. But since I've been out here, I can honestly say that I've not done anybody that I met out here wrong. But people have thought that I have and accused me of doing so."
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