Staff at Blanchet House of Hospitality, a longtime ministry to homeless people in Portland, have observed an intensification of suffering on the streets and think a surge of drug use is to blame.

“Many have lived in a constant state of survival mode for nearly two years,” said Scott Kerman, executive director of Blanchet House. “COVID is still a serious threat, but it is not the most serious threat many face in our community. Worse is the methamphetamine and fentanyl use, which many turn to as a way of dealing with trauma in their lives. But it is killing people we serve.”

In a Nov. 30 letter to supporters, Kerman explained that the problems Blanchet House encounters are unprecedented.

“Every day there is a stream of people in great need coming to our doors desperate for clean and dry clothing, medical attention, shelter, food, and hope,” he said. “And there is worse. We call the ambulance almost daily for people who are unresponsive, in a mental crisis or need immediate medical attention.”

Last month, a woman who ate regularly at Blanchet House died across the street in a tent she shared with her husband.

“This is the reality of life in our Old Town community,” said Kerman.

Fentanyl and methamphetamines have flooded the market because illegal drug makers have found them cheap to produce. The compounds affect the brain in such a way that the habitual user can derive no pleasure except from increasing doses of the drug. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 50,000 Americans die each year from opioid overdoses, with more than 70% of those deaths coming after use of synthetic opioids, chiefly fentanyl.

Staff at Blanchet have a rule: See guests not for what’s wrong with them but for what’s happened to them. A group of Catholic University of Portland alumni founded the house in 1952 based on Catholic Worker principles. In addition to providing hundreds of meals daily, Blanchet House offers clothing, housing and treatment.