his is the first story in a series about the addiction and homelessness crises plaguing Oregon.
SALEM, Ore. – It was a quiet morning, aside from the man shouting incoherently behind the Oregon State Capitol. He paced back and forth, occasionally flailing his arms, and seemed unbothered by the January drizzle.
Inside the building, lawmakers filtered in and out of meetings, trying to figure out how best to address homelessness, mental health and addiction in the upcoming legislative session.
“We have a crisis on our hands and that’s easy to see,” Republican Rep. Lucetta Elmer told Fox News Digital. “Something has to change. And Oregonians are asking for that change.”
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A man with curly brown hair cascading out from under a beanie struggled to light a flame under his meth pipe on a sidewalk in Portland’s Chinatown neighborhood. He tried to block the breeze with swollen, pink fingers, but the wind was too strong. So he tented a wool blanket over his head. He emerged a moment later along with a dense cloud of smoke.
Tara Faul snapped the portrait.
“Really sad,” she said afterward, asked how it feels to document the moment. Before she could continue, another man started shouting obscenities from underneath a Portland Timbers blanket. “And sometimes scary,” she said. “We should probably move.”
Faul grew up on the Oregon Coast and bought a house in Portland in 2018. She loved everything about the city — the culture, the food and especially the weather.
But in 2020, she felt a growing sense of despair. She could hear riots from her home some nights. She had to call her kids in from the yard when a man wandered by with a machete. A nearby house was shot up so many times it became difficult to distinguish the new bullet holes from the old.
“You couldn’t go out the door without having something crazy happen to you,” she said.
What she heard on the news and social media did not match what she witnessed in real life.
So she grabbed a camera and started documenting what she saw, trying to put an artistic flair on the piles of garbage that had become prevalent in the city. She chats with drug users and homeless people as she snaps their portraits.
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Lately, her most famous pictures have been of human excrement splattered on walls and sidewalks as the city’s homeless community faces a surge in the waste-borne illness Shigella.
Those who deride the “liberal sh–hole of Portland” on X often don’t know what to make of Faul’s appearance. The homeschooling mother of four’s short hair, piercings and tattered band T-shirts hardly scream “Trump voter” and instead regularly earn her obscenity-laden accusations that she “voted for this” and deserves “every bit of what happens to you.”
“I get it,” she said. “I look like I voted for the poop.”
‘We have a crisis on our hands’
Pioneers flocked to the land of “milk and honey” in the 1800s, seeking fertile soil and bountiful agriculture. Over time, Oregon became famous for its breathtaking natural scenery — Willamette Valley residents cherish being a mere hour from the coast and an hour from the Cascades — timber, craft breweries and coffee shops.
That picturesque scene has become tarnished.
Graffiti, tents and trash litter sidewalks and roadsides as Oregon contends with one of the highest rates of homelessness. Fentanyl deaths surged more than 67% last year, the biggest increase in the nation, according to an analysis by the organization Families Against Fentanyl.
Violent crime rates spiked 16.6% in the state from 2019 to 2022, according to FBI data, though Oregon remains safer than the national average. Car thefts surged nearly 50%, with 551.5 thefts reported for every 100,000 people in Oregon in 2022, compared to the national average of 282.7.
Only 29% of Oregonians polled by DHM Research last year said the state is headed in the right direction.
“We are on the absolute wrong track,” Elmer said. “We are in a health crisis because of the rampant drug use. We are in a justice crisis because we’re not able to deal with people who are breaking the law. We’re in a generational crisis.”
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Online, more contemptuous conservatives rejoice in Oregon’s current downturn, pointing to it as an example of failed progressive policies. A Republican hasn’t governed Oregon since the 1980s. Democrats dominate both chambers of the legislature. Voters brought this upon themselves and any lingering conservatives should flee now, go the predictable comments.
“I wish [Oregon] wasn’t always easy to kind of dunk on,” Clackamas County Commissioner Ben West said. “Much of what has happened is that there’s a lack of balance in Oregon … Politics is downstream from culture, and elections have consequences.”
Both parties have signaled a desire to roll back the state’s landmark drug decriminalization law during the February legislative session. A Democratic lawmaker is considering bringing back involuntary commitment. City leaders — including those in Portland — hope the Supreme Court will give them the power to restrict homeless people camping on public property.
“I think the voters and the residents are beyond a turning point,” West, a sixth-generation Oregonian, said of the state’s political mood. But he’s not confident lawmakers will do more than “nibble around the edges” of reform.
‘If downtown Portland goes down, the entire state of Oregon goes down’
Faul counts herself among the 56% of Portlanders who said they would leave the city in a recent poll.
“It would make me sad because I love this place, and I used to tell everybody that it was the best city in the country,” she said. “I had a ton of pride in Portland.”
She has done plenty of Zillow scrolling and research on potential places to move, but said high interest rates and housing costs have made it “not a good world to try to move around in.”
“So I’m sure a lot of people just feel trapped,” she said.
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Oregon’s population dipped in 2022 for the first time in nearly 40 years and, according to recent Census Bureau estimates, the downturn continued in 2023. High earners left Multnomah County in droves between 2020 and 2021, taking more than $1 billion in tax revenue with them.
“That’s a sign of how unique and critical this moment is,” Portland City Commissioner and mayoral candidate Mingus Mapps said. “We have to get this right, and the things that we need to be focusing in on are houselessness, public safety and economic vitality.”
Oregon’s problems are most prominently displayed in Portland. Open-air drug use, block after block of RVs and tents, vandalism and office buildings that still haven’t refilled after the pandemic.
“There’s no question Portland’s been through a rough patch,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “We have experienced an unprecedented number of simultaneous worst-case scenario crises.”
That’s why Gov. Tina Kotek made restoring the City of Roses a top priority after taking office last year, sending in state troopers to help crack down on fentanyl dealing. She recently unveiled a bundle of proposals she hopes will encourage economic activity in the city, including a sweeping effort to clear graffiti and garbage, and a push to bring down the remaining 2020-era plywood — the latter of which received chuckles and eye rolls from locals who have grown accustomed to the sight of boarded-up windows.
Portland’s city council welcomes Kotek’s vision. Downtown Portland is the “economic engine of both the city” and the state, Mapps said.
“If downtown Portland goes down, the entire state of Oregon goes down,” he said. “We cannot allow that to happen.”
As local leaders await the outcome of Oregon’s special legislative session, set to begin Feb. 5, West said Oregon and the northwest are “absolutely worth fighting for.”
“There’s still a lot of good here and a lot of great people across this entire state,” he said. “Great businesses and people that do work hard to help make Oregon better. And so I want to fight with those people.”
Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.