Chicago’s Black Communities Hit Hardest In Opioid Overdoses | WBEZ
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Chicago’s Black Communities Hit Hardest In Opioid Overdoses

At JR’s Plaza Hotel in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood, you can rent a room by the hour, the day, or the week.

Families in between permanent homes sometimes stay there. Every now and again, children run up and down the narrow hallways.

Folks in the community know it as a place for prostitution and drug use. Since 2015, 10 people have fatally overdosed at the hotel, according to city data.

One of those people was Kyle Townsend. He died in room 202 in April 2017.

Empty blue plastic baggies were found on the nightstand in his room, along with three small unidentified rocks on the floor, according to the police report.

He’d overdosed on a mix of cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl, according to an autopsy performed by the Cook County medical examiner's office.

Willie Dunmore owns the hotel and said most of his customers just need a place to stay.

“We don’t know what they’re going to do. If they’re taking drugs or if they’re going to overdose — we don’t know,” Dumore said. “If we knew they had drugs, they couldn’t come in.”

While much of the narrative around America’s opioid crisis has been focused on how it has impacted white, suburban communities, the JR Plaza Hotel in the predominantly African-American neighborhood is an example of how the problem has hit blacks especially hard in Chicago.

Family photos of Kyle Townsend who died of a drug overdose in April 2017. (Courtesy of Jocelyne Townsend)

City data show African-Americans fatally overdose from opioids — a class of drugs that includes certain painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl — at a rate three times the national average, as reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health policy organization.

In 2016, a Cook County Public Health report showed that African-Americans accounted for nearly half of all opioid-related deaths in Chicago.

‘I’d rather be shot’

Reggie, who didn’t want to give his last name, spends his days alternating between panhandling downtown near City Hall and then hopping on the Green Line ‘L’ train out to Kedzie and walking to Garfield Park to buy multiple bags of heroin. He said he repeats that cycle multiple times every day, an endless loop that’s lasted years.

Reggie, who’s in his mid-50s, grew up in the Ida B. Wells Homes, a public housing complex on the city’s South Side. He said he first tried heroin in his 20s and he got violently ill.

“I’m like, ‘Oh god, I’d never do that again,’” he said. “But low and behold, here we are some 20 years later [sic], and I’m still doing it.”

Just outside of the Metra Train station, Reggie smokes one of the many discarded cigarettes he picked up along the streets and sidewalks of downtown Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Lloyd Degrane)

These days, he said he needs to get high every six hours so he doesn’t get dopesick, the illness people feel when going through withdrawal.

“It’s the hardest thing in life that I’ve ever had to overcome, because of the pain when you can’t get it,” Reggie said. “I mean, I think I’d rather be shot than to not have to go through that. It’s really bad.”

His aversion to going through withdrawals almost cost him his arm. After repeatedly shooting up in the same area, the skin got infected and started to fall off. His arm was rotting.

“I was afraid [of going to the hospital] because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get to the heroin while I was in the hospital, and I was afraid of going through the withdrawal,” Reggie said. “That’s the thing … it takes priority over anything else, because everything is based on the next fix.”

In recent years, Reggie’s also developed a taste for fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid.

Health and law officials told WBEZ that fentanyl can be up to a 100 times stronger than heroin and has exacerbated the problem of overdoses.

A ‘whitewashed’ epidemic

In early April, Kathie Kane Willis walked along the edge of the Garfield Park lagoon and picked up “dime bags” — tiny plastic baggies used to hold drugs, anything from marijuana to heroin or cocaine.

Kane Willis, the director of policy and advocacy at the Chicago Urban League, has researched heroin and opioid use in Illinois for more than a decade.

Kane Willis co-wrote a paper last November that said the opioid epidemic had been “whitewashed.”

She said that despite the high number of African-Americans dying, they’ve been left out of the national conversation and the narratives around the opioid crisis.

“There’s this narrative about the jobs going away for the white people in the opioid epidemic, with the pills and why they’re dying,” she said. “But we don’t talk about that for African-Americans — but it’s pretty much the same reason. The disinvestment has been sharper, and more painful, and more clear, and for a longer period of time, and is considered acceptable.”

Illinois state Rep. La Shawn Ford represents the 8th District, which includes parts of the West Side.

He said even how we talk about the crisis is important.

Ford says, for example, that most users on the West and South sides of Chicago don’t identify themselves as part of the “opioid crisis.”

“They never really had an addiction to opioids in the form of a pill,” Ford said. “And so, if you have the press going out with the message about opioids in the form of pills, then that doesn't trigger that we’re trying to help you if you’re using heroin in the form of [a] powder.”

West Side neighborhoods like Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and Austin see the most opioid overdoses and emergency calls, according to recent city data.

According to health care and treatment providers, these same communities have few resources to combat the problem. They say state funding has been cut for treatment and the treatment centers that are left often have long waitlists, especially for people without private insurance.

Gabriela Zapata-Alma, director of drug treatment programs for Thresholds, a mental health and addiction treatment agency, said their clinic in the Austin neighborhood serves mostly African-Americans.

“A lot of the people we serve feel very erased and feel very devalued,” Zapata-Alma said.

The solution

A solution heavily pushed by lawmakers and health officials in the opioid epidemic is naloxone, an opioid-reversal drug.

There’s disagreement among some advocates, however, on whether African-American users can easily access it.

Although available through nasal injection, on the street, naloxone is usually handed out by prevention workers in its syringe form. But a study by Chicago health officials found African-American users commonly snort heroin, often referred to on the street as “tooting.”

“We see that the majority of the people we serve here in Austin are people who do not have experience with syringes, and even the thought of giving someone an injection can be stressful,” Zapata-Alma said.

Researcher Kane Willis said that means naloxone in its syringe form might not be the best solution in Chicago’s black communities.

“Different populations sometimes need different things and in a different way,” Kane Willis said. “People who don’t inject probably don’t go to syringe exchanges [where naloxone is often distributed]. We’re talking about different populations. They can’t be treated exactly the same.”

In March, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine published a report on naloxone access among opioid users.

The survey sampled about 100 patients at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County on the city’s Near West Side. The average participant was in their late 40s, more than half were African-American, and the majority of those surveyed snorted heroin.

“We found that those folks didn’t know about [naloxone] as much and were less willing to take it,” said Dr. Steve Aks, an emergency physician at Stroger Hospital.

But the push for naloxone in Chicago’s black communities persists. The Chicago Recovery Alliance, a local harm reduction group, has deployed people on the street to help.

One of them is Kenneth Bowdry, an Austin resident who was formerly addicted to heroin.

“You can ask maybe 10 people, and you say, ‘Well, who do you think overdoses the most in Chicago?’ And they’ll say, ‘White people, because we toot, and they shoot.’ And that’s not true.”

Bowdry spends his days walking around the neighborhood giving out naloxone kits to users and teaching them how to use them.

“It’s going to be enough people dying from shootings and all of that stuff,” Bowdry said. “We don’t need nobody [overdosing]. It’s something we can prevent.”

‘My child supposed to bury me’

Townsend, who died at the JR Plaza Hotel, was 33 years old when he overdosed.

His mother, Jocelyne Townsend, said she often thinks about the last time she saw Kyle — about a week before his death.

“He didn’t look right to me,” she said.

So she created a plan: find a way to get him into rehab.

“Before I got a chance to do that, he OD’d.”

She said if she had a chance, it’s a moment she’d redo.

“I hope no one else’s child has to suffer, [that] no other parent has to feel what I feel, ‘cause it’s really hard,” she said. “What they say? You never supposed to bury your child, my child supposed to bury me.”

Kyle was a single parent when he died, and his mom now takes care of the young daughter he left behind.

Jocelyne says she tries to remember the good things about her son, like his humor.

“Even though my son died from a drug overdose, he was a good person,” she said. “He had a good heart, and sometimes you get caught up in situations and you don’t quite know how to get out of it. And I think that’s what happened.”

Lakeidra Chavis is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @lakeidrachavis.

This story was developed as part of the 2018 Third Coast Radio Residency at the Ragdale Foundation.

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