From the Sept. 18 edition of Street Roots.
On a sunny Monday during the early afternoon, a 27-year old homeless man only wanting to be identified as “Joe” for this story walks down a hill overlooking I-405 and sits on a piece of cardboard laid out among, bushes, empty bottles and litter. The sounds of cars and buses are all around. Joe takes out a blue bag, unzips it, and takes out a twisted-up piece of white wax paper. Inside the paper is an almost imperceptible amount of a gooey, dark brown substance. Joe says it’s a couple dollars worth of black tar heroin.
“I treat this like a medicine,” Joe says. “Oh shit, a cop just went down the street.” He quickly gets up to move.
“You’re focusing on doing something pretty intricate and you have one eye scanning so you don’t get caught and hemmed up,” he says as he walks down the street.
Stopping at an intersection, Joe looks around. “I think we’re good,” he says. He walks down along a hill overlooking another part of I-405. Tucking himself in between two bushes and setting his backpack next to him, he takes out a needle from a Ziploc bag of 10 he recieved at Outside In’s Syringe Exchange Clinic. Holding it in one hand, he takes the tin cup out of his backpack and puts the heroin in it. He also takes out a small water bottle, puts it on the ground, and puts a red lighter on his leg.
Pulling the syringe with his mouth, he pulls water out of the bottle and shoots it into the tin cup. Holding the cup with a twisted bread tie, he heats it for about 20 seconds with the lighter.
With the syringe’s plunger, Joe mixes the liquid. Licking the end of the plunger, he sucks the heroin into the syringe.
“She didn’t give me a tourniquet,” he says, looking through the Ziploc bag.
He takes off his belt and wraps it tightly around his bicep. His veins begin to pop out, and faintly lining his arm are the scabs and scars from previous injections.
Slowly, he inserts the needle, his fist clenched. But he doesn’t inject. Instead, he moves the needle left to right inside his arm, looking for and missing the much-sought-after vein. Murmuring to himself in pain, he pulls the needle out. A small bead of dark blood follows.
“Maybe there’s something wrong with this needle,” Joe says. “I’m just used to having the tourniquet.”
Swiping the blood onto his fingertip, he licked it off. Every time Joe saw a drop of blood as he poked his arm three more times, he’d lick—not to miss a single grain of heroin.
On the fourth injection, Joe stopped moving the needle. Holding it still for a moment, he slowly pushed the plunger with one finger, staring at the point of entry the entire time, watching until every drop of light amber fluid disappeared into his arm.
He loosens the belt before he lets the needle out. Blood trails down his arm. Wiping his arms with his hands, he licks his fingers.
“Sometimes it turns into a bloody mess and you’re just trying to get your fix,” he says as he uses an alcoholic wipe given to him at the needle exchange clinic operated by Outside In.
Joe says he does not feel that much different after taking the heroin. “This is even for me,” he says, not describing the high any further.
On his way up the embankment, Joe stops to talk to a panhandler sitting at the corner. Crossing the I-5 bridge back to downtown, he quickly walks in the direction of a surplus store, his gait almost gliding.
Joe says he will probably shoot up in another four to six hours.
A growing trend
Dennis Lundberg and Mike Reese rarely see eye to eye. But recently, the outreach worker for the homeless youths organization Janus Youth and the commander of the Portland Police Bureau’s central precinct have found common ground on a unlikely topic: the rise of heroin use in Portland.
Heroin use, Lundberg and Reese say, ebbs and flows in Portland with the seasons. Summertime is when the presence of the drug reaches it peak, coinciding with the presence of a seasonal homeless population frequenting downtown. As the weather cools and dampens, the amount of heroin declines as some youths leave town. Continue reading