Matthew Hayes died from an opioid overdose. His family says pandemic aid is partly to blame
When Khristina Hedding got married last September, her younger brother Matthew Hayes stood by her side. He was the maid of honor. Khristina said it started as sort of a joke.
"But he was my maid of honor," she said. "He stood right next to me, held my flowers.”
He wore a tan suit and a salmon-colored tie. There were wildflowers pinned to his lapel.
That was the last time Khristina saw her brother. Three days later, Matthew was found lying on the bed in room 218 at the Econo Lodge in Montpelier.
He had died of an opioid overdose, one of 215 Vermonters in 2021, the highest number of fatal opioid overdoses the state has ever recorded. Nationally, federal data show that more people died of drug overdoses in 2021 than any other year. And the number of overdose-related deaths was higher through the first two months of 2022 than through the same period last year, according to the Vermont Health Department.
This surge coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic — a prolonged period of isolation, stress, loneliness and anxiety.
“I think COVID killed my brother,” Khristina said. “But like not actual COVID. I think the whole — the whole thing.”
Khristina says the final straw for Matthew wasn’t the disease, or the world in disarray, but the systems set up to help people through it all — and the cracks that opened up between them.
Matthew Hayes grew up in Waterbury. His parents divorced when he was 7, and he was raised primarily by his dad.
Matthew was a lonely kid. His parents say he was diagnosed with depression in elementary school, and he struggled with anxiety. As he got older, he spent a lot of time not wanting to be here. His mom needed expensive surgery before she was able to give birth to him, and he’d say things to her, like: "What were you thinking?" And: "Why’d you go and spend all that money just to have me?" And: "I wish you guys didn’t."
He started working in restaurants downtown when he was 14, first as a dishwasher and eventually as a line cook. He wore tie-dye T-shirts and had gauges in his ears. He loved working on cars — Subarus especially. He and his mother, Terri Brillon-Hayes, would drive down back roads with the radio on, listening to classic rock.
“'Play that music louder, Mom,'” she remembers him saying. "'Turn that music up.'"
He’d pull into his sister Khristina’s driveway in Salisbury in a car with no muffler. He’d often spend weekends with her, and would go to her for advice. She was almost 16 when he was born, and was something in between a sister, a mother, and a friend.
As a teenager, Matthew got in trouble here and there — shoplifting from the gas station, snorting prescription Adderall. He began smoking weed, started partying. His father, Greg Hayes, said he wasn’t too worried about it.
“In my own mind, it was innocence and growing up. So I didn't think it was harmful,” he said.
But after Matthew graduated high school in 2018, it became clear that something was wrong.
His dad noticed that he was feeling down on himself, working in the back of a restaurant in his hometown while his friends started to head off to college, get new jobs, and have babies.
Matthew’s mom noticed mounting legal issues — mostly around cars, like speeding, and driving without registration.
“And I could see that they were going to get bigger,” Brillon-Hayes said.
And they did: he got his first DUI in May 2018, and went on to get a handful of driving citations. He started stealing from his dad. A relationship ended with a restraining order against him. After the breakup, he stole his ex’s computer and slashed her new boyfriend’s tires, according to court records.
And soon, it came out that Matthew had another problem: he’d started smoking crack cocaine. Khristina remembers the moment he told her. They were sitting on the swing set at her house in Salisbury.
“I turned to him and I was like, 'Crack, Matthew? You know, like, you're better than that. You're not a crackhead. You didn't grow up in a crack house,'” she recalled.
His addiction got worse throughout 2019, along with his mental health. In February of that year, his family says he experienced a psychotic episode, and was quickly diagnosed with schizophrenia.
And in March of 2020, he went through another breakup. Only this time, he didn’t slash the new boyfriend’s tires — he texted someone a photo of a hunting knife and the words “he’s dying.” So at the beginning of the pandemic, when Vermont prisons kept people isolated for nearly 24 hours a day, Matthew went to jail. Khristina remembers him calling her, crying.
“I mean, he was alone in a cell," she said. "And you can't talk to the people, ‘Hey, I'm having a really hard time, you think I can come out of here for five minutes?’ It's not okay. Ever.”
Matthew's family says he was there for more than a month. When he got out, they say, his mental health declined further. And he still had a drug addiction — only now, thanks in part to programs designed to help people struggling in the pandemic, he had new ways to pay for it. He started getting pandemic unemployment assistance. Then there was federal stimulus money.
“They just handed him thousands of dollars, which were gone overnight," Greg said. "For crack, I think, you know, drugs."
It got to be too much. And in the spring of 2021, Matthew's dad kicked him out of his house.
During the pandemic, the state set up a program using federal COVID relief money to provide anyone experiencing homelessness a room in a hotel or motel across the state. In the summer of 2021, Matthew bounced around motels in Barre and Montpelier.
In Matthew’s rooms, the beds were unmade, there were used food containers everywhere, and cigarette ash covered the end table. There was trash on the floor, the windows were open, and the carpet was encrusted with vomit.
He had an addiction, cash on hand, and a room to himself. Khristina says in hindsight, sending him there was one of the worst things they could have done.
“It's like, 'Here's a bunch of money. And also all of your neighbors will assist you in getting these drugs,'” she said.
The last time Matthew Hayes saw his family was at Khristina’s wedding in September. It rained that day. Khristina remembers her brother, the maid of honor, dancing and smiling. He told her he was happy to be there.
“And I'm like, ‘I'm happy you're here.’ He's like, ‘Wouldn't miss it,’" Khristina said. "So just — just real big smile.”
The next morning, Matthew and his mom drank coffee on the porch and watched the sun rise. And then it was time for him to head back to room 218 at the Econo Lodge.
“‘Go on, Mom, give me a hug,’” she remembers him saying. “‘Give me a hug. I gotta get going.’ And then he'd hug me with those big arms, and I'd hug him back, and I feel all warm and fuzzy, you know, looking up at him.”
A few days later, on Sept. 21, Matthew’s dad found him in his room at the Econo Lodge. He says he was lying diagonally on the bed, fully dressed, with a crack pipe in his hand. It was his 22nd birthday.
An autopsy found the levels of crack and fentanyl in his system were each enough to cause death. The women who allegedly sold him the drugs are facing felony charges. The one who sold him fentanyl has pleaded guilty, the other has pleaded not guilty.
Khristina thinks about her brother all the time. She remembers him as a little kid, snuggling with her on the couch. She can picture him as a teenager, in the driver’s seat of the car. And the last night she saw him, an almost 22-year-old, standing at her side with a bouquet of flowers.