Wherever he goes, Jordan Gale sees photographs. It’s his life’s work, after all, to capture compelling moments through the lens of a camera. So as the blue city bus rolls across Portland, Oregon, his eye catches details that tell stories. The yoga studios and hipster markets of his neighborhood embody the local stereotype. Stretches of blocky apartments and neon-sign restaurants reflect growth and prosperity. But when the bus turns, the scenes get a little more bleak. Broken-down RVs, off-brand motels and clusters of tents along 82nd Avenue speak of a city in crisis.

Portland is not alone, particularly in the West. An epidemic is raging from Seattle to Los Angeles, Las Vegas to Denver. Cities are overwhelmed with homelessness and addiction, which can overlap visibly on the streets. When authorities take down one colony in Salt Lake, another pops up nearby, in a public park or on a hillside. Nobody has found the answer, but Portland’s troubles are particularly complex, and seem to be getting worse. While Oregon ranks fourth in the nation in homelessness, overdose deaths have spiked in the City of Roses, from 90 in 2020 to 159 in 2022 and forecasts of 300 by the end of this year.

Gale moved here in 2021 from New York, where he’d grown tired of covering bike theft and mayoral campaigns for local metro sections. Maybe he could take on heftier issues out west, in a city with less competition. He’d grown up in Iowa but wasn’t what you’d call sheltered. Still, what he saw here outstripped anything he’d ever seen. “It was shocking,” he says. He has thick brown hair, a stubbly mustache and a smattering of tattoos. “You could walk down any street and there’s tents and encampments and people smoking fentanyl off tin foil. You can’t ignore that.” 

So he shouldered a camera bag and headed across town. Soon he was making this 20-minute bus ride several times a week, spending upward of 15 hours a day along 82nd Avenue. It was grueling, emotional work, building relationships with people living on the streets and the organizations trying to help them. He built up a striking body of work, black-and-white photographs of homeless folks and their neighbors, police, EMTs and drug users. Today, that work has appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic and The New York Times, drawing national attention to an intractable problem and the legal change that seems to be making matters worse. Now the bus hisses to a stop, and he steps back into the fray.

Today, Oregon treats low-level drug possession as a violation that carries a $100 fine, not unlike a traffic ticket. Fines can be waived with a phone call.

As Gale wrestled with tragic scenes of overdoses and desperate people, he also tried to understand what was behind it. His research led him to Ballot Measure 110, passed in 2020 by 58 percent of Oregon voters. The measure decriminalized possession of small amounts of illicit drugs and directed $100 million per year in tax revenue from the cannabis industry to addiction recovery programs. Supporters hoped this would get more users into treatment, curtailing crimes of desperation and reducing the burdensome costs of incarceration. Instead, the streets are overwhelmed. 

Oregon was not the first to try a similar approach. The Biden administration has adopted a philosophy of harm reduction, treating drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal issue. Even conservative Utah passed HB348 in 2015 to try funneling convicted drug users into rehabilitation rather than jail. Internationally, Portugal pioneered the idea, decriminalizing heroin amid a severe wave of abuse in 2000, part of a broader effort. Measure 110 followed that model, but went further than any similar American law. 

Today, Oregon treats low-level drug possession as a violation that carries a $100 fine, not unlike a traffic ticket. Fines can be waived with a call to the state’s treatment referral hotline. This hard left turn highlights a confusing trend across the country, as more states legalize marijuana and other substances or soften their stances. Meanwhile, the federal war on drugs continues and the minimum mandatory prison sentences introduced in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 remain largely intact. With three times more drug arrests in 2019 than 1980, it’s hard to say that problem is going away.

The opioid crisis, specifically, is still getting worse, six years after the federal government declared it a public health emergency. The news cycle has moved on to lawsuits and settlements with opioid manufacturers, distributors and drug store chains, more typical of an issue reaching its resolution. Netflix has even released a series called “Painkiller,” inspired by the Sackler family, whose company created OxyContin. But drug overdose deaths increased by 14 percent from 2020 to 2021. Three-fourths of those deaths involved opioids, 88 percent of which were synthetic, like fentanyl. 

No photographer could change any of that, so Gale set out to put a human face on a dire situation, to inspire empathy and perhaps command attention as the problem kept getting worse.

“The basic impulse to try to find ways other than incarceration to motivate change, I think is a good one. But like anything else, you can go too far.”

The bus rumbles away, leaving Gale on a sidewalk near a kaleidoscope of tents. A crowd is gathering outside the Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church, in a parking lot tucked between two modest structures with slate blue siding and triangular rooflines, across 82nd Avenue from a strip mall and a used car lot. Every Sunday, the Rev. Sara Fischer hosts a dinner for the community, hoping to make the parish “a dynamic bridge between two parts of Portland” — presumably the part that lives on the street, and the part that doesn’t. 

Gale knew he had to earn the trust of the streets. Vulnerable as their lives are, homeless folks tend to be wary. Some had felt burned by others with cameras, social media types looking for salacious stories that could go viral. Some feared he would shoot without their permission and invade their privacy — a sticky question when one lives in a public place. He even had to get vetted by drug traffickers who work in the area. But many others welcomed him warmly. Some of them frequent this dinner, a rare social gathering for this particular demographic.

Friends embrace over the death of a mutual acquaintance on NE 82nd Ave. in Portland, Oregon. | Jordan Gale for the Deseret News

On a balmy night in August, fare consists of pizza, soda and bottled water. People come and go, but more appear to be homeless than typical congregants. Gale had come up against addiction before, on a yearslong project documenting his own roots. In Iowa, towns are more spread out, the crisis hidden in homes, basements and cars. So he learned to develop relationships with potential subjects.

That means people like “Coach,” a 52-year-old man in a well-worn track suit, homeless since a “bad divorce” six years ago. He could no longer make rent on his wages at the Montavilla Community Center, where he’d worked for 20 years, so he stays out here with a white terrier mix named Uno. The trouble with living among addicts, he says, is their desperation leads to fights and muggings. He’s lost his motorcycle, his bicycle and his Chevy Silverado — bought with the last of his savings — all stolen or confiscated. “People will steal from you, even if they’ve known you your whole life,” he says. “Fentanyl made it even worse.”

“This is not an Oregon problem. It’s occurring throughout the country.”

Through the viewfinder of Gale’s Fujifilm DSLR, a slender man named Noah, with shaggy black hair and a gray-flecked beard, presses the flame of a handheld torch up against a thin, straw-like tube — a fentanyl pipe undergoing a cleaning. Gale snaps a photo. The man tells him he wanted to be an English teacher, until an adolescent addiction to OxyContin spun him off into years of struggles with heroin and trauma. He relapsed during the pandemic and turned to fentanyl when he couldn’t find heroin. Now he lives in fear of that drug’s gut-wrenching withdrawals. “Someone is going to do whatever it takes to make that (feeling) go away,” he says. 

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, similar to OxyContin, but exponentially more potent — 100 times more than morphine and 50 times more than heroin. Developed as an anesthetic in 1959, it’s still used in clinical settings, including some epidurals administered to mothers in labor. But around 2011, amid measures intended to combat opioid abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration tracked an uptick in illicit fentanyl. First it was stolen or manufactured in small labs that law enforcement  quickly shut down. Later it surfaced for sale on the dark web, shipped in small packages directly from Chinese factories. That was before Mexican cartels moved in as highly efficient bulk intermediaries.

By 2020, Portland was flooded with familiar pills at cut-rate prices. “And what turned out was they no longer contained oxycodone,” says Joe Bazeghi, director of engagement at Recovery Works NW. “These were just fentanyl with binding agents pressed to look like oxycodone.” At first, users didn’t know what they were getting, but by the time Measure 110 rolled out, fentanyl had obliterated the competition. Suddenly, it was the only opioid on the street. Its supercharged high wears off sooner and creates a stronger dependency so users typically need another dose every two hours just to avoid withdrawals, which are harder to treat.

“Our old tools are significantly less effective, and people are dying at rates that we’ve never seen before,” Bazeghi says. Funded by Measure 110, Recovery Works NW is the first facility in Oregon to specialize in treating fentanyl withdrawals. With room to treat up to 1,200 cases per year, it represents an 18 percent increase in the city’s capacity. Time will tell whether that is enough, in Portland or elsewhere, because fentanyl “is not an Oregon problem,” Bazeghi says. “It’s occurring throughout the country.” 

Nationwide, the number of overdose deaths each year has risen by 40,000 since 2019, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, driven largely by fentanyl. Its lethal concentration in small packages has also made it harder for law enforcement to detect. “All the illicit fentanyl Americans consume in a year,” says Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford, “would fit on one truck.”

After police sweep his encampment, Noah gathers what he can carry and walks. Gale finds him on a residential street and lines up a perfect shot. But as he adjusts the camera settings, a woman opens a nearby door. “You’d better not be setting up your camp right there,” she says. “We paid too much money for these houses for you to ruin the value.” This is the kind of attitude Gale hopes to change with his work. Policy is another world. 

Contractors board up a vacant office building that was used as an open air drug market. | Jordan Gale for the Deseret News

Critics say Measure 110 lacks sufficient incentives or deterrents to push people into treatment. Law enforcement leaders call the citation system useless. Even rehab professionals who value the increased funding (Oregon ranks last in the nation in access to drug treatment) say something is missing. “Instead of harm reduction, it should be health promotion,” says Jerrod Murray, executive director of Painted Horse Recovery. Saying “we’re just gonna give you some bubble pipes, and we’re gonna give you clean needles, and everything’s gonna be just fine,” he says, makes recovery even more difficult. 

Humphreys agrees. “The basic impulse to try to find ways other than incarceration to motivate change, and to try to not make the punishments for drug abuse worse than drug use, I think is a good one,” he says. “But like anything else, you can go too far.” Measure 110 lacks an enforcement mechanism analogous to Portugal’s dissuasion commissions, which can push people into treatment using creative discipline, like suspending their license to practice a trade.  Oregon “left that out,” Humphreys adds, “so it’s not surprising they got the results that they did.”

In these debates, Gale worries that frustration can spiral into cruelty, while addiction and homelessness devolve into abstract concepts. But on 82nd Avenue, they’re concrete realities, alongside the scourge of mental illness and the cycle of rehab and relapse. But life here is also more complex than that, and human. “There’s so many layers to it,” Noah says. “There’s still people falling in love. There’s still people trying to survive.” 

It’s dark when the photographer steps back on the bus, his memory cards loaded with images to process and edit, faces he wants you to see. Gale calls this “the hardest part,” trudging past the galleries and cafes of his neighborhood, “going back to my comfortable living situation.” Some nights, unable to rest, he sits on his stoop and thinks about some incident he’s witnessed, some burden he cannot share. Sometimes he feels guilty, as if he were taking advantage. Sometimes he thinks about the law and the inhumanity of public discourse. “I think we naturally just choose to simplify things,” he says. “And you’ve gotta tell yourself that that’s not the case.”

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.