UIC and Opioid Task Force Open Safe Space to Help West Side Drug Addicts

One morning in June, a man walked into what was once vacant land at Pulaski Road and Van Buren Street and announced that he had just taken PCP.

He had come to the right place.

Mark Hartfield was waiting for him, in a new facility intended to provide drug addicts with a safe place to stay while recovering from what they took.

“The concept is to have a place where they can relax, watch them and see if they overdose,” Hartfield said. “I consider myself a glorified babysitter. I’m just here to make sure they breathe.

The man who had taken the drug, a hallucinogen often referred to as “angel dust”, passed out and passed out, but continued to breathe. If he had stopped, Hartfield and a team of medical personnel were ready to help him.

The installation — two canopies with chairs, a table, a cooler filled with water, and a primary care van parked behind — was started about three months ago by the University of Ottawa’s Community Outreach Intervention Projects program. ‘Illinois in Chicago and the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task. Strength.

Their goal is to reduce overdose deaths on the West Side. More and more people stop by every week.

The site, open Mondays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. — or whenever the last patient leaves — also offers COVID-19 testing and vaccination; basic first aid; and assistance in obtaining other services, such as food, clothing and transportation.

The site is staffed by task force workers trained in overdose response as well as UIC doctors and nurses.

A copy of the map that Community Outreach Officers from the West Side Task Force distribute to publicize the harm reduction site.

For dealing with overdoses, the West Side location is ideal. It’s near the Eisenhower Highway, not far from where the vendors operate in the open-air drug markets on side streets and in vacant lots.

“We’re seeing more overdose deaths than we’ve seen in a long, long time,” said Dave Jimenez, the UIC program manager who came up with the idea for the site.

In 2021, 1,447 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Chicago, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. That’s a 60% increase from 2019, 11% from 2020, and the most ever in Chicago.

Such deaths are “nothing new,” Jimenez said, “but the volume is much larger, and I attribute that to fentanyl being part of the drug supply.”

Fentanyl, an extremely potent opioid, puts users at even greater risk. Of those overdose deaths in Chicago in 2021, 89% involved fentanyl, according to the medical examiner’s office.

The task force is one of many community health organizations addressing overdose deaths in the region through education and the distribution of naloxone hydrochloride, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose. of opioids. The task force has taught more than 6,000 people how to administer naloxone, which is commercially available under the name Narcan.

Vials of naloxone hydrochloride, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Eden Keller, clinical pharmacist for Community Outreach Intervention Projects at the University of Illinois at Chicago, shows vials of naloxone hydrochloride, a drug that can counteract the effects of an opioid overdose. It is commercially available under the name Narcan.

However, not everyone wears it or wears enough of it.

Around the same time Hartfield sat with the man as he blacked out and lost consciousness, a woman stopped on her bicycle. Her friend was overdosing; the woman had administered a dose of Narcan, but it was not enough.

Site workers rushed to the scene – within sight of the canopy – and resuscitated her.

In fact, staff at the site regularly see someone overdosing from where they are sitting and running to treat them. So far they haven’t had any overdoses on the site itself.

Beyond preventing deaths, they also hope the site will help some users get treatment.

“From experience, I can say the road to recovery is having someone there for you,” said Hartfield, who was once a user himself. He has a degree in sociology and is pursuing a master’s degree in public health. It has been part of the UIC program for about nine years.

Mark Hartfield (left) and Lee Rusch outside the harm reduction site they helped start on the West Side.

Mark Hartfield (left) and Lee Rusch outside the harm reduction site they helped start on the West Side.

Being in a safe space is important for drug addicts in more ways than one.

“If you are intoxicated, the likelihood that you will be tricked or beaten up increases,” said Lee Rusch, director of the task force.

The site may also simply provide a well-deserved respite from “all the weariness of being on the streets, of being homeless,” Rusch added.

Still, the assist is just an intermediate stop, Rusch said. What would really save lives, he says, is a permanent overdose prevention center – a place where users can not only get treatment, but also use drugs on the spot. This is prohibited by current federal law.

The working group assesses support for a center through community surveys. For now, both groups are doing what they can.

“Hopefully it grows, that we can expand it a bit,” Hartfield said. “Feel free to come by, ask your problems, have a drink of water while we make sure you don’t die.”

A mobile primary care clinic and facility for drug addicts set up by UIC and the West Side Heroin Opioid Task Force

The University of Illinois at Chicago Community Outreach Intervention Projects mobile clinic for drug addicts is set up by UIC and the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force in a land vacant at Pulaski Road and Van Buren Street.

Michael Loria is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for Americaa non-profit journalism program that aims to strengthen the newspaper’s coverage of communities on the South and West Sides.

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