Charles Hanset was living another day that wasn’t supposed to be, which meant he had another chance to make a difference. So he stacked seven pizza boxes in the passenger seat of his station wagon.
Hanset, 38, already had packed the back end with blue jeans, sweaters and khakis. There was his old “Indiana Jones” shirt, which didn’t fit him anymore, along with more undersized clothes he’d brought from home. There were women’s clothes, which he’d scrounged from local Oxford Houses. There were clothes he’d gotten from Recovery Cafe Clark County, where he works part time to coordinate resources for those in recovery.
Finally, Hanset spent about $70 to purchase seven large pizzas and two bundles of water bottles, even though he knew it would dent his small monthly income. Next to the water bottles, Hanset placed a black box filled with housing application packets, fliers on mental health and addiction services and minutes and agendas from meetings Hanset had attended.
On this 90-degree July day, Hanset was headed to a homeless drive he’d been organizing for months. Hanset had previously distributed resource packets and McChicken sandwiches at homeless encampments in Vancouver with his friend Jennifer King, but he was looking for the place he could create the largest impact.
He settled on the Vancouver Navigation Center, the day shelter on Grand Boulevard. Hanset hoped he could distribute pizza and clothes to 100 people.
“Think this is enough pizzas?” Hanset asked his friend Shannon Livingood, as she stood next to him in the Little Caesar’s parking lot on East Fourth Plain Boulevard.
Hanset would use the help of Livingood, King, Recovery Resource Center Manager Keith Wells and others to throw the drive.
As a resource coordinator, Hanset has helped about 15 people find housing, said Recovery Cafe Clark County Executive Director Larry Worthington. He’s connected another 10 people to mental health services, and helped three people find employment, as well as pairing another two or three people with transportation.
“He doesn’t discriminate in whom he helps. He just wants to help,” Worthington said. “He’s made a huge difference.”
Maybe now someone at the drive would want his resources. Maybe someone would become sober because of his help today. Maybe someone would get treatment for serious mental illness. Maybe someone would find housing.
Journey to recovery
Hanset has been sober since Father’s Day 2017. Around age 12, he began smoking marijuana. At 19 he was prescribed opioids for back and neck pain. After misusing the prescription, Hanset was cut off his pain medication plan, so he started using heroin. He’d overdosed several times: at Leverich Park; outside a convenience store; another time not long after his sister Sonya had died of a heroin overdose. Once he was saved because he fell on the horn button of a car and woke a woman sleeping nearby.
“Who gets this many damn chances?” Hanset would ask himself. Now, he lives a life that seems like it should no longer be, so he sees every day as a chance to help someone.
He leads multiple recovery-focused support groups each week, is heavily involved in Clark County’s Opioid Task Force, sits on the Southwest Washington Recovery Coalition and the Behavioral Health Advisory Board and took a role as a Clark County Drug Court mentor.
“I want to give back to the community I took from,” he told the advisory board in June.
Jim Jensen, a professor in Clark College’s Addiction Counselor Education Department, who works with Hanset on the opioid task force, said Hanset feels compelled to give back, because other people helped him reach sobriety.
“He is willing to do what it takes, even if that is normally something that would make people uncomfortable,” Jensen said.
Many days Hanset bounces from meeting to meeting, moving through the layers of power and policy that partly shaped the opioid epidemic, which is larger than he is, but to him feels personal.
Descent into addiction
Like so many struggling with opioid use disorder, Hanset was introduced to opioids legally through the health care system. A National Institute on Drug Abuse study found that in the 1960s about 80 percent of those entering opioid treatment had become addicted by using heroin. By the 2000s, those numbers had flopped, with 75 percent first using prescription drugs. The annual death count from prescription opioids has risen from 3,442 in 1999 to more than 17,000 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in October of the same year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.
As PeaceHealth’s Dr. John Hart told The Columbian in April, “We created this problem. How many people in the street started on heroin their first dose? Zero. What did they start with? They started with Vicodin, Percocet, a prescription I wrote.”
Hanset was born with scoliosis, and started to experience pain in his early teens after helping his stepfather with cement finishing work. The twisting and bending hurt his bad back, and Hanset sought medical relief.
Around age 19 he began taking a prescription of five milligrams of Vicodin. That rose to 10 milligrams, and he’d take it about three times a day. Next came oxycodone, which he recalls as a “whole new world” of pain relief. He also started using fentanyl patches and morphine as part of his treatment plan. In 2008 and 2010 he had neck surgeries. He needed pain medication just to get out of bed in the morning. He couldn’t work without it. He became so addicted that he used up his prescription early, so he forged a renewal date.
He got caught and was kicked off his pain plan about eight years ago. He started buying pills off the street. The black market was expensive, so he switched to using heroin, which was cheaper, around 2013.
All the while, Hanset was arrested more than 30 times for possession of stolen property, theft, possession of a stolen motor vehicle, possession of heroin and more. Hanset entered drug court in June 2017. About 18 months later, he graduated with no missed court dates, no missed drug tests and no sanctions, even though he was in and out of the hospital dealing with aspiration pneumonia for the first three months.
As Hanset would say, he saw the “patterns of trauma,” and wanted to share his life experiences with others in hopes of spurring change.
“I kind of feel like an outcast, but I want people to hear my voice, too,” he said last winter.
That’s why Hanset has visited the state Capitol twice this year to speak with legislators about recovery and housing. Hanset is comfortable around those with power, and also those without it. He can speak in front of state senators, as he did at an opioid forum during the winter, or he can speak with people recovering from addiction, as he does daily.
Hanset has served on a board with law enforcement, the same group whom he, in part, credits for turning his life around. A University of Washington School of Medicine report released in July 2018 estimated that 56 percent of the 47,751 Washingtonians who are regular users of opioids would be released from a state prison or jail within the year.
41 opioids per person
Hanset also interacts with employees of the hospitals and clinics who helped distribute 119.7 million prescription pain pills throughout Clark County between 2006 and 2012, according to Washington Post statistics. It was enough to supply 41 pain pills per year to every person in the county. In 2016, 289 million prescriptions were written for opioids, enough to give every American adult more than one bottle of pills.
That rise in opioid use disorder led to more than 47,000 opioid overdose deaths nationally in 2017, a number that skyrocketed from about 8,000 deaths in 1999, according to CDC statistics.
The trends held true in Washington and Clark County. There were 742 overdose deaths in Washington in 2017, including 39 in Clark County. Southwest Washington Accountable Community of Health statistics show that opioid-related hospitalizations increased 200 percent in Clark County in the last decade, and overdose deaths increased by 40 percent during the same time period.
In March, Clark County sued opioid manufacturers and wholesalers “to hold the companies accountable for harm opioid addiction has done in local communities and recover public costs,” according to a news release. It cited 91 opioid-related deaths in Clark County between 2014 and 2017.
The county later joined a larger class-action lawsuit, and now Vancouver is considering joining a lawsuit.
“We are very much dealing with the effects and the implications of the opioid crisis in our community,” Vancouver City Councilor Ty Stober said at Monday’s council meeting.
Hanset knows he offers micro-solutions to macro-problems, but still feels like he is making a difference. He thinks maybe if he does enough he will inspire others to help, too. As he had heard Jensen say at May’s Opioid Task Force meeting, “Relationships are a pathway to recovery. There’s no magic pill that works better than relationships … It will have to be us or nobody.”
And more and more, it seems like the work of Hanset and many, many others is slowly stemming the opioid epidemic. Overall drug overdose deaths dropped by 5 percent in 2018, the first dip in nearly three decades, according to the CDC.
“The latest provisional data on overdose deaths show that America’s united efforts to curb opioid use disorder and addiction are working,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a July 2018 statement. “Lives are being saved, and we’re beginning to win the fight against this crisis.”
In Clark County, opioid overdose deaths fell from 39 in 2017 to 27 in 2018. Washington’s death toll dropped from 742 to 647, but the 2018 death count is preliminary, and could be adjusted upward.
Local efforts continue to increase. Columbia River Mental Health Services hopes to partner with the Clark County Jail to make the facility the first in the state to have a certified opioid treatment program. PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center has started an opioid treatment network to immediately pair patients with medically assisted treatment if needed. Lifeline Connections provides treatment services and counseling, and Ideal Options opened its second low-barrier opioid treatment clinic in the county in July.
Times, ideas and recovery infrastructure are changing in the county, but deaths from opioids persist, as well as issues such as homelessness that are connected to opioid use disorder.
Hanset, who lives by himself in Vancouver, does spend time with his three kids, sometimes taking his eldest son swimming at Dougan Falls. Other than his kids, Hanset has structured his life around recovery so much that his recovery has, in large part, become helping others recover.
“It took a whole village to get me here,” he said in front of friends at Recovery Cafe on his two-year sober anniversary in June. Now it is time for him to be part of other people’s villages.
After placing the pizza boxes in his car, Hanset jump-started a man’s minivan in the Little Caesar’s parking lot. The man offered him two more pizzas — upping his homeless drive total to nine pizzas. The man thanked Hanset and shouted, “That’s the way the world should be.”
“I’m working on it,” Hanset replied.
After driving across town, Hanset parked his car in the Navigation Center’s lot and started shifting boxes.
First he opened a box with blue jeans and khakis. Next came the sweaters and underwear. Then Hanset brought his small black box with paper resources, and placed it on a table. He started breaking off pizza slices and handing them out on napkins. A long line snaked its way through the parking lot to the pizza table. Some people started looking through the clothing.
One woman tried on an Adidas fleece. Another examined some thin floral pants. A man grabbed a plaid shirt.
The previous day Hanset had visited an area emergency room seeking treatment for back, shoulder and rib pain. A doctor had accused him of fishing for pain medication, even though Hanset is sober from pain medication. He now takes only Suboxone, which helps quell drug cravings.
Yet, Hanset still suffers daily from chronic pain. Many times it feels like he is being stabbed when he breathes. Sometimes he can’t bend over without pain. That’s how Hanset felt during his homeless drive. But toward the end of the event he started bending over and picking up clothes to hand them out. He picked up a pair of jeans and held them to a man’s waist. They seemed to fit, so Hanset handed the pants to him.
He started searching for size 31 pants, since a man requested that size.
“Nobody took my ‘Indiana Jones’ shirt,” he quipped.
After the crowd died down, Hanset began to pack up the remainders. He talked to Livingood about when they should schedule the next drive. There were still plenty of clothes and resources left to hand out. They decided to aim for Aug. 18. This drive had gone better than he planned.
Hanset said goodbye, and began the brief walk back to his car, carrying his black box of resources in one hand.
“Maybe next month I can have more people walk alongside me,” he said.