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Chicago has an opioid epidemic, local agencies battle growing crisis
by David Thill

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High-profile opioid-related deaths in recent years, including the singer Prince, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Glee's Cory Monteith have focused widespread attention on an epidemic affecting cities across the nation, including Chicago.

The Cook County Medical Examiner's office found that in 2015, Cook County had 609 opioid-related overdose deaths, 403 of which were in Chicago. Though heroin is often blamed, overprescribing of opioids by physicians—particularly pain relievers such as methadone, oxycodone ( including Oxycontin ), and hydrocodone ( including Vicodin )—is contributing significantly to addiction and overdose deaths.

Additionally, prescription opioids often act as a gateway to heroin, the presence of which has recently become apparent to many in the Windy City.

"Heroin Highway"

The Night Ministry has long been known for its youth housing programs ( including the predominantly LGBT homeless youth shelter, the Crib ) and its health outreach bus. In 2016, the organization launched its Street Medicine team to reach, by foot, those pockets of the city that the nearly 40-foot-long bus cannot.

Heroin is commonly injected via intravenous ( IV ) needle, a resource that clients have not requested of the outreach bus. ( Many organizations distribute clean needles in efforts to quell the spread of infectious diseases transmitted through unclean needles. ) But when the Street Medicine team began its work, it was a "whole new world," said David Wywialowski, director of outreach and health ministry at The Night Ministry.

"We're seeing an … enormous increase in IV drug users, from what we saw just one year ago," said Jeff Ayoub, an outreach professional on the Street Medicine team. He has seen a rise in particular of young people from Chicago suburbs who are now homeless and using heroin. That number, he said, keeps growing.

On the day alone that Windy City Times spoke with him, Ayoub estimated seeing about a dozen IV drug users in their 20s, some as young as 22. He figured the average IV user served by the Street Medicine team is in their mid-20s to mid-30s.

In recent years, the Eisenhower Expressway has been nicknamed the "Heroin Highway," a reference to the easy path for the drug to travel from the city to the Western suburbs. "It is indeed a myth that the problem of drug abuse, specifically heroin abuse, is that of the poor inner cities," said a 2012 News Chicago article.

Having seen the effects of the opioid epidemic firsthand, The Night Ministry is now one of several agencies throughout the city working to mitigate the problem.

The antidote

Partnering with Chicago Recovery Alliance, a West Side harm reduction outreach program, the Street Medicine team started passing out supplies to individuals in need. Aside from clean syringes, alcohol wipes, and gauze, the outreach team also passes out vials of naloxone: the medication, injected into the outer thigh, that acts as an antidote against opioid overdose. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, naloxone could save the life of someone who has overdosed.

In a survey conducted at the end of 2016, the Street Medicine team documented 121 people whose lives had been saved by naloxone. The medication plays a part in treatment programs throughout the city.

Howard Brown Health offers a range of services for patients experiencing addiction, said Cori Blum, M.D., site medical director of Howard Brown Health Sheridan and Broadway Youth Center. These services range from harm reduction practices such as distribution of clean needles, to physical and behavioral health treatment, to distribution of and counseling in the use of naloxone for patients.

Dan Bigg, director of Chicago Recovery Alliance, said that his agency treats a wide range of individuals. In October, the City of Chicago granted the organization $250,000 to distribute the antidote in the communities hardest hit by the epidemic, such as those on the West Side. Bigg noted that this was the first time in 20 years Chicago Recovery Alliance received government funding.

Chicago Recovery Alliance has several sites throughout the city—listed on its website,—where anyone can go to receive training in the proper use of naloxone in order to be prepared to respond if they witness an overdose.

The FDA also provides precautions for patients to follow should their doctors prescribe an opioid.

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