A 4-block radius on the West Side is at the heart of Chicago’s opioid epidemic

SHARE A 4-block radius on the West Side is at the heart of Chicago’s opioid epidemic

Jamie Roberts holds a photograph of her son, Darwin Phillips, who died of a Fentanyl overdose, in front of her house that is in the heart of Chicago’s opioid epidemic. | James Foster / Sun-Times

On July 15, 2016, Darwin Phillips was found dead by his mother in the basement of the home in West Humboldt Park where she and Phillips had lived since she bought it in 1979.

He was 50 when he died of an overdose of heroin and two types of Fentanyl, heroin’s synthetic but deadlier cousin, an autopsy found.

“A sweet guy” who worked odd jobs while grappling with mental illness and addiction and was the father of two, Phillips had overdosed five times before his fatal OD, according to his mother Jamie Roberts.

“It’s a disease,” says Roberts. “It’s sad that people take advantage of drug addicts. It still bothers me a lot. We tried to get him help.”

Phillips’ death was one of 745 in Cook County in 2016 linked to opioids, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. In Chicago, African-American victims like Phillips accounted for 362 of those deaths — 48 percent.

That stands in contrast to what’s going on nationally. Across the United States, white people accounted for about 78 percent of all opioid deaths in 2016, research by the Kaiser Family Foundation found.

“The epidemic in Chicago is not the national epidemic,” says Amanda Brooks, chief population health officer of the PCC Community Wellness Center, which focuses largely on the West Side. “The Chicago epidemic is affecting 45- to 65-year-old men on the West Side.”

In 2014, there were 212 opioid-related deaths in Cook County, 129 of them in Chicago, according to the medical examiner’s office. By 2017, Cook County had 1,150 opioid deaths, 764 of those in Chicago.

By comparison, Chicago saw 664 homicides in 2017.

What’s changed to cause the rise in opioid deaths? The rise of Fentanyl, experts say.

The powerful painkiller is legally available by prescription. But it also can easily be manufactured illegally and typically is mixed by dealers with other illicit, though less deadly, drugs like heroin — often without users knowing they’re taking Fentanyl.

“Most of our patients are not intentionally taking Fentanyl,” Brooks says.

About 5 percent of the opioid deaths in 2014 were Fentanyl-related, according to medical examiner data, and 67 percent were tied to heroin.

By 2017, Fentanyl was a factor in 57 percent of opioid deaths in Cook County, while heroin played a role in 66 percent. A combination of the two played a role in 37 percent.

While the number of opioid deaths has risen sharply countywide since 2014, the impact largely has been felt in areas with a lack of resources.

In 2017, Chicago Fire Department crews were dispatched to 9,158 opioid-related overdoses, records show — up 163 percent compared to 2014. The hardest-hit parts of the city: West Side neighborhoods like Garfield Park, West Humboldt Park, Austin and North Lawndale.

A four-block radius roughly around Ridgeway and Augusta alone was responsible for 1,257 calls in 2016 and 2017 — about 7.2 percent of all opioid-related calls citywide during that period.

That’s the area where Phillips died.

His mother says drug dealers don’t set up in the immediate area around her home, as she and her neighbors have made it clear that they want to keep their sidewalks crime-free. When the weather turned warm, Roberts resumed what’s become a summer tradition for her: selling snow-cones for 25 cents to $1 outside her home.

“This,” Roberts says, “is my corner.”

Jamie Roberts serves shaved ice in the area that’s at the heart of Chicago’s opioid epidemic. Her son died from a Fentanyl overdose, and she’s trying to send a message that drugs and crime aren’t welcome on her block. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Jamie Roberts serves shaved ice in the area that’s at the heart of Chicago’s opioid epidemic. Her son died from a Fentanyl overdose, and she’s trying to send a message that drugs and crime aren’t welcome on her block. | James Foster / Sun-Times

But venture a little farther, and the easy availability of drugs is apparent. Roberts says an alley near her home is known to host “serves” around the first day of every month, with dealers offering free samples.

“There’s a drug dealer on every corner of Augusta,” says Roberts, who calls the police on the dealers.

But health and policy experts view opioid abuse as a public health issue more than a criminal one.

“We’re not arresting our way out of this problem,” says Dr. Julie Morita, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “We work really closely with police to make sure their [crisis-intervention training] is as effective as it can be and making sure they’re equipped to identify people who need mental health or substance-abuse services.”

Citywide, the Chicago Police Department has been making fewer heroin-related arrests in recent years. In 2017, there were 3,425 heroin-related arrests, a 58 percent drop from 2005, according to city data.

“We believe that we have to address opioid use as part of a larger public health crisis,” police spokesman Frank Giancamilli says.

Giancamilli points to a pilot program on the West Side in which nonviolent drug offenders are being taken to a treatment program rather than to jail. Nearly 80 people have gone through the program, and there are plans to expand the effort citywide.

The city also has focused on medication-assisted treatments, set up a hotline to find opioid help and established a trial program for officers in the worst-hit parts of Chicago to carry the overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

Those neighborhoods, like West Humboldt Park, see the effects of the crisis every day.

“Most of the people tell us they expect to be dead in the next 10 years,” says Nancy Powers, who oversees services at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center in West Humboldt Park, a residential substance-abuse program for up to 200 men. “The only time they can find that relief is with drugs.”

Powers says her organization tries to reach West Side residents through the residential program as well as by hosting activities and holding monthly walks on Chicago Avenue, talking and praying with dealers who are set up on street corners.

Powers says these neighborhoods need more resources to spread the word of treatment options and to provide opportunities to help people overcome the pull of drugs.

“People won’t become addicted if community conditions are better,” Morita agrees. “Those are the kind of things that, in the long term, will prevent us from having this opioid epidemic.”

Since 2015, PCC has treated 539 people through its medication-assisted treatments, according to Brooks.

“As a treatment provider, being able to be part of these patients’ lives in a way that we can see change immediately is rewarding,” Brooks says.

One of those patients is Tatiana Tobias, a 52-year-old Austin resident who says she’s been an addict for 24 years.

“I was ready to stop using heroin and other drugs,” says Tobias, who has been in PCC’s program since August. “This is the first time I’ve been successful.“I’ve lost friends and family members,” she says. “None of them really reached the age of 50. It could’ve been me.”

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