The number of overdose deaths in Oregon last year jumped 57% over what was already a record-breaking year. About half of the 745 Oregonians who died from an unintentional overdose were on fentanyl, according to preliminary data from the Oregon Health Authority. At the same time the use of stimulants like methamphetamine has also risen sharply, killing 548 Oregonians in 2021 compared to 93 a decade prior. Both drugs are highly addictive and usually require some medical assistance to wean off once a person is dependent on them.
But, the first step into treatment can be a difficult one to take without support, and reducing these stats requires work from people on the ground who can identify and support people struggling with addiction.
Shawnda Jennings works as a peer support specialist for Ideal Option, an addiction treatment provider with over 70 clinics across the United States. On Tuesdays she visits inmates at the Deschutes County Jail and plans their recovery on release, and afterward rides along with sheriff's deputies to do outreach. On Thursday she's tagging along with the Shepherd's House Project S.H.A.R.E van, which distributes food, clothes and other household items to homeless camps, to talk with people on Hunnell Road. On Fridays she visits the Lighthouse Navigation Center to offer up Ideal Option's services to the people staying at the shelter there.
Jennings couldn't put a number on how many people who have gone into treatment on her watch, but said Ideal Option's seen a steady increase in clients since bringing her onboard in May. At the camps and the shelter people greet her like an old friend and are just as likely to chat as learn more about Ideal Option.
"I really just kind of familiarize myself to them, ask them how they're doing," Jennings said. "It's kind of just being available, and the consistency of seeing them to where they start getting comfortable to open up. Sometimes it's just like being at the right place at the right time."
Jennings said the decision to go into treatment is up to the individual, but that once that decision is made, she can be the connection to long-lasting help.
For Mary Bishop and Michael Brizendine, that decision happened just before becoming stranded in Bend. The couple was on their way to the east coast from Portland after deciding to quit using drugs. They felt they couldn't quit in the same environment that got them hooked.
"Before we had a car we lived on the street and when you go to lay down at night, and you have to constantly watch your back to make sure that nobody steals a book bag with your wallet, your birth certificate, and all your life properties are in that bookbag," Bishop said. "Other people on the street, if you're not a drug user, will tell you, 'Hey, if you just do this one time, you'll be awake for two days, and you'll be able to take care of yourself and you'll have energy,' or, 'Hey, if you do this, you won't be cold.'"
When en route to Salem with the intent to eventually get back to the East Coast, another drug user they didn't know broke their windshield and flattened their tires. They visited the Shepherd's House homeless shelter on Second Street and asked what resources were available for addiction treatment. They were referred to urgent care and given Jennings' number.
"Shawnda immediately came to me and helped me set an appointment up. She met me at the office for the first appointment, and they all very well explained to us what would happen and what I would need to go through," Bishop said.
Bishop and Brizendine are proud of their progress; in just a few months they've stopped using and work regular jobs — Bishop is even training to become upper management at IHOP after just a couple months on the job.
Ideal Option uses a suboxone treatment that reduces withdrawal symptoms and cravings while blocking other opioids from binding to and activating opioid receptors in the brain. People start with two appointments a week and doses are gradually spaced out as the patient becomes more stable.
"The most important part is to make sure that they make it to the first, second and third appointment," Jennings said. "It's really hard because sometimes you see a lot of people just disappear."
“It kind of runs deep in my veins and my soul. So, I felt like there was a purpose of why I went through everything I went through. And that's to be able to share that hope to other people and let them know that there is light on the other side.”—Shawnda Jennings
Jennings approaches her clients with empathy that comes from personal experience. She and her family struggled with addiction for years. Her father died from an intentional overdose less than an hour after her grandmother passed away. Her half-brother died by suicide in the same way. She's been in recovery for five years, using the medication Sublocade and a 12-step program to turn her life around. She said the foundation of her life began after hitting rock bottom and growing from it.
"It kind of runs deep in my veins and my soul. So, I felt like there was a purpose of why I went through everything I went through. And that's to be able to share that hope to other people and let them know that there is light on the other side," Jennings said.
The light on the other side for Jennings is a rewarding profession where she helps people, a sense of community among the helpers and a good environment to raise her 15-year-old son. That son is an honor student and popular YouTuber who amassed over 16 million views and 253,000 subscribers in a little over a year posting videos about the video game Minecraft. But Jennings' work takes a village to be successful, and she's often working with other programs to provide full wrap-around services.
"Not having that support is really hard for individuals and not having a home, not having somewhere to take a shower and the normal things that we take for granted, they don't have that and it makes it hard for people that are homeless to seek out recovery," Jennings said. "That's why I tried to get that relationship and get them in some sort of program. It can actually give them a good support system to do to be able to overcome what they're going through."