(Chicago) – TASC Vice President of Community and Government Affairs George Williams joined other members of the new West Side Heroin Task Force assembled on International Overdose Awareness Day to announce findings of a study on the impact of heroin in Chicago’s west side neighborhoods.
The Roosevelt University study, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Heroin’s Impact on Chicago’s West Side,” found that while media coverage of the current epidemic has focused on “the new face of heroin”—white, suburban or rural users—the west side for many years has been ground zero of the crisis and its consequences.
“To continue to ignore the west side of Chicago is like a firefighter putting out a fire in part of the house and leaving the house burning,” said State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-8) at the August 31 press conference. The task force, led by Ford and comprised of dozens of partners and organizations, including TASC, will support and intensify existing efforts in the fight against heroin.
Long considered to be a place where people with heroin addictions travel from the suburbs and other parts of Chicago to get their drugs and leave, “the city’s west side actually is a hotbed for heroin hospitalizations, arrests and deaths,” Roosevelt University’s news announced.
State Rep. Camille Y. Lilly, (D-78), vice president of external affairs at Loretto Hospital, highlighted broader community issues related to the heroin crisis. “The overdosing is the outcome of other factors and issues that are going on in our society. People are using drugs to deal with life, lack of jobs, lack of money, lack of housing, lack of healthcare,” she said. “Policy is what’s going to make the difference, and how we fund the policies that are enhancing the lives of individuals.”
Task force member Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, authored the study, which found that opioid-related hospital admissions of Chicagoans on the west side constitute almost one in four such hospitalizations across Illinois. Additionally, heroin possession arrest rates in these neighborhoods continue to exceed those in other parts of the city, even increasing during times of overall citywide decline.
Further, the study indicated that the Chicago metro area experienced the second greatest decline in publicly funded drug treatment admissions among all state metro areas, falling by 61 percent over the past 5 years.
The study found that recent heroin overdose rates were higher in Chicago than in suburban Cook, Will, Lake, McHenry, DuPage, and Kane counties, and the overdose mortality rate across the state was significantly higher for African Americans (8.94 per 100,000 population) than for whites (5.86).
The report includes recommendations to increase community-based treatment, reclassify drug possession related to small amounts as a misdemeanor offense, and provide medication-assisted treatment to individuals incarcerated in Cook County jail, among others.
Joining fellow task force members to release the report, Williams noted that the world is moving to a platform of public health, and not a criminal justice response to heroin addiction.
“Everyone deserves the right to their life and to live,” said Williams. “That’s why we need the necessary services that our state reps, particularly Representative Lilly and Representative Ford have fought for… to continue to make sure that the west side does not continue to be the epicenter, but the west side becomes the model of how the community has gathered together and interrupted men and women and families and communities losing their lives when it’s not necessary.”
Ford advocated that resources, services, and cutting-edge programs be directed to residents, and also encouraged funding for House Bill 1, a comprehensive measure to fight heroin.
In addition to Ford, Willis, and Williams, speakers at the press conference included Dr. Sonia Mehta, CEO of Loretto Hospital; Jacqui Colyer, regional administrator of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services; Dr. Dan Lustig, vice president of clinical services at Haymarket Center; Jamelia Hand, overdose prevention advocate; Marianne Schiavone, chairperson of West Suburban Hospital; Doris Davenport, president of the Center of Community Connections; and Chelsea Laliberte, executive director of Live4Lali.