How fentanyl and social isolation have worsened youth homelessness crisis in Oregon

By Tiffany Camhi (OPB)
Jan. 25, 2024 2 p.m.

New challenges are overwhelming an already inadequate network of services for young people struggling with substance abuse.

This is Part 2 in series of stories looking at Oregon’s unsheltered young adults — learning who they are and what forces are working against them. See Part 1 and Part 3.

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2023 started out as a good year for Chris Tauanuu. After living on the street for six months, they got into stable housing, with help from the nonprofit New Avenues for Youth. Tauanuu went back to school, taking music classes at Portland Community College. As an aspiring entertainer, they had the thrilling experience of performing as a special guest with the Oregon Symphony.

“I’ve been singing my whole life,” Tauanuu said in an interview last October. They had more than 10,000 followers on Instagram showcasing their music. “I just love music. It comes really easy to me.”

And with their larger than life personality, Tauanuu made friends fast.

“I like to sit with my friends and just, like, hammer life into their head,” said Tauanuu, who described themselves as the therapist in their friend group. “I’m just giving them life — I bring them a little razzle dazzle.”

But even with talent, charisma and a solid social network, Tauanuu still had demons. Though they were emotionally close to their Samoan and Tongan family in California, they grew up in foster care in Stockton. They ran away once to New York City.

“I’ve just been through a hell of a lot of shit growing up,” Tauanuu said.

Music was how they coped with most of their family trauma. Tauanuu used drugs from time to time. They were aware of the devastating effects of fentanyl.

“My friends have died from it,” said Tauanuu of fentanyl. “It’s crazy. I learned that life is very short.”

But Tauanuu never thought their own life would be cut short. The exact circumstances aren’t clear, but on Nov. 11, 2023, Tauanuu was found dead in their studio apartment in downtown Portland. They were 21 years old. Law enforcement who were on scene found drug paraphernalia, suggesting a potential drug overdose. The Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office declined to release details to OPB about Tauanuu’s death.

Tauanuu was able to overcome many challenges in their short life. But their death comes in the context of powerful forces that are brutalizing Oregon’s homeless youth population, particularly the ravages of the fentanyl epidemic and social upheaval from the COVID pandemic.

COVID and fentanyl combine to intensify youth homelessness crisis

In spring 2020, when COVID first began to grip the U.S., public health officials urged people to distance themselves from others and shelter in place. That was no problem for people with a stable home. But for young people experiencing homelessness, it was almost impossible.

Tauanuu had moments of stability during the pandemic. They turned 18 right before COVID shut down communities, so had aged out of the foster care system in California. They moved to Portland to live with a cousin.

“I needed something different when I turned 18,” said Tauanuu.

They got a job and saved up money to get their own apartment. But the job and apartment didn’t last long. Tauanuu bounced back and forth between California and Oregon for two years. They said they first became homeless in the fall of 2022 after moving back in with their cousin didn’t work out.

Dennis Lundberg, director of Runaway and Youth Services at Janus Youth Programs, said many youth experiencing homelessness are escaping mental or physical abuse at home. Tauanuu struggled to find solid ground after leaving foster care.

“It was dangerously myopic for us to think that everyone has a safe, stable home to shelter in place at when the pandemic emerged,” said Lundberg. “Young people, who are already vulnerable, became more vulnerable.”

Throughout the pandemic, symptoms of anxiety and depression increased among adults in the U.S., according to Census data. Last year, about 3 in 10 adults reported feeling worried, nervous or hopeless. Those rates are even higher for young people: About 50% of young people aged 18 to 24 surveyed last year reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Many young people lost important connections with friends and trusted adults during the pandemic. And community spaces that anchored homeless youth closed in an instant.

“They’ve been drifting for three years — three years in the life of an 18-year-old is a mighty long time,” said Lundberg. “They’re missing developmental milestones, rites of passage are missed.”

Isolating from others helped stop the spread of COVID, but isolation also drives addiction. During the pandemic, substance abuse, overdose deaths and suicide rates increased across the nation. At the same time illicit fentanyl, the deadly and cheap opioid, was making its way onto the street drug scene in Portland. Overdose deaths, largely driven by opioids like fentanyl, doubled in Oregon from 2011 to 2021. Lundberg believes what we’re seeing now is many young people self-medicating their mental health difficulties with drugs.

“If you’ve watched people smoke fentanyl on the streets of Portland you know it’s an oblivion drug,” said Lundberg. “They want to vanish from hopelessness and they want to heal from trauma. And if they can’t heal from it, they want to at least cover it up and feel better for 10 minutes.”

It’s not clear what Tauanuu was dealing with but the fact that they experienced homelessness, poverty and the foster care system, they inevitably endured intense stress and likely trauma.

Will Kendall describes Chris Tauanuu as “fearless” and full of energy. Kendall, executive director of the Portland homeless youth nonprofit Artist Mentorship Program, was a mentor to Tauanuu, who died in November 2023.

Will Kendall describes Chris Tauanuu as “fearless” and full of energy. Kendall, executive director of the Portland homeless youth nonprofit Artist Mentorship Program, was a mentor to Tauanuu, who died in November 2023.

Tiffany Camhi / OPB

Will Kendall, executive director of the Portland homeless youth nonprofit Artist Mentorship Program, or AMP, was a mentor to Tauanuu. Kendall recalls them as a juggernaut of energy, a person who dominated any room they walked into. ”Chris was fearless,” said Kendall, who would sometimes accompany Tauanuu on guitar. “But I think that [fearlessness] came from experiencing the worst things that could possibly happen.”

Kendall was worried about Tauanuu, noticing their increased use of drugs and alcohol. He had already saved their life once. A month before their fatal overdose, Kendall administered Narcan — the overdose reversal drug — and performed CPR on Tauanuu.

“We had a youth come in here and say, ‘Hey, Chris just overdosed up in Park Blocks,’” said Kendall. “I grabbed Narcan and I ran out of the building.”

As Kendall recalled, Tauanuu was revived but ran away before an ambulance with medics arrived. Kendall saw them the next day at AMP.

“They came in after basically being dead, like nothing happened,” said Kendall. “And I was like, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you about what happened. I don’t want you to die.’”

Instead Tauanuu mostly sat in silence. Over the next few weeks they began to make art and music again. Processing what had happened meant Tauanuu needed to unravel a lifetime of pain and uncertainty, said Kendall. It was something they were not ready to do.

”It was really telling of what I think a lot of the [homeless] youth’s experiences are: They are physically changing, they’re emotionally changing,” said Kendall. “If these kids were coming from traditional backgrounds and had this kind of trauma, they would be in therapy.”

Substance use services can help youth, but they’re in short supply

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Substance use disorder services are lacking in Oregon. A 2022 study from the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health estimated the state would need to nearly double the level of its currently available substance abuse services to adequately meet the need.

The state allocated $18.75 million to Oregon’s Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program last year, but none of the service providers receiving grants put their money towards substance abuse disorder services.

Portland’s 4D Recovery is among the few youth-specific and peer-led substance use recovery centers in the entire state. Founder and executive director of 4D, Tony Vezina, said many of the services and strategies used in adult recovery are similar to those used for young people. But the big difference is many youth do not identify with the experience of older generations.

”What we try to do is take all the young people and have them run our events, but have a recovery focus to it,” said Vezina, who has lived experience of drug addiction and homelessness. “It’s allowed young people to basically feel a part of the recovery community.”

Vezina said fostering a substance abuse recovery identity among young people helps them take ownership of their disease and begin to manage it. A clear and evidence-based abstinence intervention 4D uses is called positive peer group.

“Basically young people create a social contract with each other and when they enter it, they enter these norms around not using drugs or alcohol anymore,” said Vezina.

4D’s recovery centers also function as a community center, places where young people can come to decompress, play video games, have a snack or just chill out with friends. Chris Tauanuu and their friends frequented the program’s clubhouse in Gresham often. Vezina did not know Tauanuu but he said if they came to 4D at all, then they were probably interested in some kind of substance abuse recovery.

“If you’re coming to 4D, that means you self-identify as having a problem with drugs and you’re trying to make steps towards being in recovery,” said Vezina.

Vezina also chairs Oregon’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission. Heading into this year’s legislative session the group is pushing for more funding for substance treatment services specifically for young people and a statewide strategy to treat and prevent substance abuse in adolescents and young adults.

Oregon has been taking steps to address the state’s drug addiction crisis, including by gaining voter support of Ballot Measure 110. The referendum was supposed to be a game changer, decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs and funding the creation of more substance abuse recovery programs for Oregonians. But a bumpy rollout that coincided with the rapid rise of opioid-related deaths in the state has led many voters to become disillusioned with the unique law.

Lacking recovery services, advocates see need for harm-reducing education

With overdose rates rising in the state and substance use disorder recovery centers stretched thin, many homeless youth providers are now pushing for the use of harm reduction techniques. Harm reduction, a key part of Measure 110, emphasizes safer ways to use drugs and helps reduce the stigma of drug addiction. Advocates of this approach say it could save lives.

Tauanuu was a beloved member of Portland’s homeless youth community. A hand painted sign and photos of Tauanuu are included in a memorial at HomePlate Youth Services in Beaverton, Dec. 6, 2023.

Tauanuu was a beloved member of Portland’s homeless youth community. A hand painted sign and photos of Tauanuu are included in a memorial at HomePlate Youth Services in Beaverton, Dec. 6, 2023.

Tiffany Camhi / OPB

Mireya Baltazar, drop-in coordinator at Home Plate Youth Services in Beaverton, believes harm reduction provides young people a more holistic route to recovery.

“These situations are really isolating for people and there’s a lot of shame and a lot of judgment from outsiders,” said Baltazar, who is also a peer support specialist with lived experience of drug addiction and homelessness. “Outsiders typically will push, ‘just get clean, just don’t do drugs.’ That’s not helpful, it’s not effective.”

At times controversial, harm reduction strategies can include anything from needle exchanges to distributing Narcan. Educating young people about ways to prevent accidental overdoses is especially critical since much of the fentanyl sold on the street is crudely made, said Baltazar.

“When you’re getting medical grade fentanyl, you know how much is in it,” said Baltazar. “With these fentanyl pills you don’t. We have had people hit one pill, one time and die.”

Baltazar said harm reduction education is critical for young people because many of them think an overdose is something that can’t happen to them. At Home Plate, she educates young people about the dangers of illicit drugs, how to respond to a person who has overdosed and informs people of overdose prevention supports, like the Never Use Alone hotline. She also connects people to addiction recovery services, if it’s asked for.

“Being prepared for an overdose can mean life or death for somebody,” said Baltazar.

Baltazar said many youth don’t know about Oregon’s Good Samaritan Overdose Law, which protects people seeking medical help for an overdose from being arrested or prosecuted for several drug-related offenses.

A candlelight ceremony was part of the Houseless Day of Remembrance memorial held Dec. 21, 2023, in Portland. The event, held annually on the first day of winter, remembers people of Portland’s homeless community who died in 2023, including Tauanuu.

A candlelight ceremony was part of the Houseless Day of Remembrance memorial held Dec. 21, 2023, in Portland. The event, held annually on the first day of winter, remembers people of Portland’s homeless community who died in 2023, including Tauanuu.

Courtesy of Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County Communications

“It’s a protection because it happens a lot,” said Baltazar. “People overdose, people [with them] get scared and leave and people die.”

Baltazar was another mentor to Tauanuu. She first met them in 2022 at Home Plate.

“As soon as I met them, I just knew that this person was very special,” said Baltazar. “Chris always had a smile and big energy, lots of singing. They were a really caring person.” Tauanuu is the third Home Plate client to die in less than a year.

“It was like back to back youth loss: a car accident, a suicide and then an overdose and it’s just tough shit,” said Baltazar. “These are young people that have their whole lives ahead of them.”

Eloise Zana, a peer who accessed resources through Portland’s homeless youth continuum around the same time as Tauanuu, wants harm reduction tools to be more readily available for young people.

“I’m not one of those people who’s sober and is like, ‘we should all be sober,’” said Zana. “If it gets you through the hardest time of your life — living on the street — do what you gotta do. Be safe and test your drugs.” Zana thinks everyone should carry Narcan.

“I hear people on the streetcar every day and they’re like, ‘I just lost my friend to an opioid overdose,’” said Zana. “It’s so easy to just have [Narcan] with you, in your purse, in your back pocket.”

Marcieline Novatore, left, and her partner Eloise Zana, in their Northwest Portland home, Jan. 22, 2024. Both have lived experience with homelessness.

Marcieline Novatore, left, and her partner Eloise Zana, in their Northwest Portland home, Jan. 22, 2024. Both have lived experience with homelessness.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

But too much harm reduction can distract from the underlying mental health struggles that are often behind substance abuse, said 4D’s Tony Vezina.

“If I am so depressed that I’m cutting my wrist, every time I cut my wrist could be my last time,” said Vezina. “So should I be forced into treatment, observed and figure out what’s going on? Or should I be brought bandages and clean razors?”

Vezina believes harm reduction is a part of the solution to helping young people out of addiction, but not the only solution.

The exact circumstances of Chris Tauanuu’s death, whether they were using drugs alone or with other people, might never be known. But what is clear is that their death rocked the homeless youth community in Portland. If people in the community didn’t know Tauanuu personally, they certainly knew of them.

“A lot of the [young people] coming through here loved Chris,” said AMP’s Kendall. “Chris was a massive part of their community.”

Homeless youth organizations do what they can to honor the young people who die while seeking their services. They hold memorial services open to the public. At both Home Plate and Outside In, Tauanuu’s name was added as a leaf to memorial trees, commemorating young people who have died.

Memorials painted by young people at Portland’s homeless youth nonprofit Artist Mentorship Program, commemorate their friend, Tauanuu

Memorials painted by young people at Portland’s homeless youth nonprofit Artist Mentorship Program, commemorate their friend, Tauanuu

Tiffany Camhi / OPB

Handwritten notes from homeless youth fill a box at Home Plate. And young people at AMP created a line drawing portrait of Tauanuu. The words “forever in our hearts” are painted next to them.

“We made this piece just to say we’re never gonna forget Chris, ever,” said Kendall. “They’ll always be with us.”

Editor’s note: If you are struggling with addiction, confidential support is available 24 hours a day at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline. Just call 1-800-662-4357.

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