With opioid deaths at record levels, users now have a safe space on West Side

The facility is a partnership between the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Community Outreach Intervention Projects program and the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force. Their goal is curbing overdose deaths.

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A safe site for drug users has been set up in a vacant lot at Pulaski Road and Van Buren Street on the West Side.

A safe site for drug users has been set up in a vacant lot at Pulaski Road and Van Buren Street on the West Side. It’s a joint effort by the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Community Outreach and Intervention Projects program and the West Side Heroin Opioid Task Force.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

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

He’d come to the right place.

Mark Hartfield was there waiting for him, at a new facility meant to give drug users a safe place to stay while recovering from whatever it is they’ve taken.

“The concept is to have a place for them to chill, check in on them, and see if they’re OD-ing,” Hartfield said. “I consider myself a glorified babysitter. I’m just here to make sure they’re breathing.”

The man who had taken the drug, a hallucinogen often called “angel dust,” passed in and out of consciousness but kept breathing. Had he stopped, Hartfield and a team of medical personnel were ready to help.

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

Their goal is curbing overdose deaths on the West Side. More people have stopped 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 help obtaining other services, such as food, clothing and transportation.

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

The card that outreach workers use to spread awareness of the harm reduction site.

A copy of the card that West Side task force community outreach workers pass out to spread awareness of the harm reduction site.

Michael Loria/Sun-Times

For treating overdoses, the West Side location is ideal. It’s near the Eisenhower Expressway, not far from where sellers operate in 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 director 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 up 60% from 2019, 11% from 2020 and the most ever recorded in Chicago.

Such deaths are “nothing new,” Jimenez said, “but the volume is a lot greater, and I attribute that to fentanyl being in the drug supply.”

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

The task force is among many community health organizations dealing with overdose deaths in the area through education and by distributing naloxone hydrochloride, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The task force has taught upward of 6,000 people on how to administer naloxone, commercially available as Narcan.

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

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

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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

About the same time Hartfield sat with the man as he slipped in and out of consciousness, a woman pulled up on a bicycle. Her friend was overdosing; the woman had administered one dose of Narcan, but it wasn’t enough.

Workers from the site sprinted to the scene — within sight of the canopy — and revived her.

Those staffing the site, in fact, routinely see someone overdosing from where they sit and run to treat them. So far, they have had no overdoses at the site itself.

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

“From experience, I can say that the road to recovery comes from having someone there for you,” said Hartfield, who was once a user himself. He has a sociology degree and is pursuing a master’s in public health. He has been with 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.

Michael Loria/Sun-Times

Being in a safe space is important to drug users in more than one way.

“If you’re intoxicated, the likelihood of you getting rolled or beaten up just goes way up,” said Lee Rusch, director of the task force.

The site also can simply offer a much-needed respite from “all the weariness of being on the street, of being homeless,” Rusch added.

Still, assistance is just an intermediate stop, Rusch said. What would really save lives, he believes, is a permanent overdose-prevention center — a place where users can not only get treatment but also use drugs on site. That’s prohibited under current federal law.

The task force is gauging support for a center through community surveys. For now, the two groups are doing what they can.

“I hope that it grows, that we can expand it some,” Hartfield said. “Feel free to come over, lay down your problems, have a glass of water while we make sure that you don’t die.”

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

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

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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