Salvation Army Helps Equip East Garfield Park to Battle Opioid Overdoses

Aug 11, 2020

Cook County is on track to double the number of opioid-related deaths from last year, according to top elected and health officials. It’s an alarming fact. But, for people who live in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods hit hardest by opioid overdoses, it isn’t shocking.   

East Garfield Park is one of those neighborhoods. On a recent Friday afternoon, The Salvation Army Mobile Outreach team, in collaboration with the West Side Heroin Task Force, distributed naloxone, a medication that rapidly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Members of the Mobile Outreach team and Prevention Partnership, the task force’s coordinating agency, met with people who congregated near the corner of Madison Street and Albany Avenue.

One of those individuals was Gregory, who said he frequently witnesses overdoses in the neighborhood. “Every day, all day,” Gregory said. “It’s an everyday thing.”

The street corner was identified as a “hot spot” for outreach. It’s one of 25 places members of The Salvation Army Mobile Outreach team stop daily to hand out food and offer case management services. They’re on a first-name basis with many of the people they serve. One of them is Regina, who said she’s tired of coming across people who are overdosing without having a way to help.

“Every time I’m in the neighborhood,” Regina said. “It seems like God always puts me in the right place at the right time.”

Regina and Gregory were among those who walked up to a table set up about 150 yards from The Salvation Army Mobile Outreach unit to pick up a naloxone kit. 

“I thank God they came out with this here,” Gregory said.

Richard Vargas, Director of Community Social Services at The Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, said the naloxone distribution has been in the works since the beginning of the year. But, it was postponed until late July. He said opioid overdoses were on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, Vargas said the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, as fewer people are seeking help at the hospital due to fear of catching coronavirus. But, they haven’t stopped using.

“There’s an alarming amount of usage and products in the community,” Vargas said. “I think the community is aware of it to a certain degree, because I think the community is around it.”

Put simply, Vargas said the purpose of the naloxone is to save lives. “It’s a rescue medication, a rescue dosage,” Vargas said. “You’re really rescuing and reviving the person.”

Any adult can visit the West Side Heroin Task Force distribution sites to access naloxone for free. Each person receives a packet of information with the naloxone kit. A member of the task force walks the individual through recognizing the signs of an overdose, such as bluish-purple nails and lips, unresponsiveness, and pale, clammy skin. The task force gives step-by-step instructions on how to administer the naloxone. The first direction is to call 911.

Luther Syas handles community outreach for the West Side Heroin Task Force. He said he asks for each person’s name and phone number when they pick up the naloxone kit, so his team can follow up and check in periodically.

“You build up that trust because then you can get more information from the individual and let them know you have other resources besides the reversal kit,” Syas said. “We have connections to treatment and recovery programs.”

The team has scheduled seven distributions of naloxone in various neighborhoods on the city’s west side over the next several weeks. Vargas said the hope is to educate the community on the effects of opioid overdose, and raise awareness of the epidemic, as well as the resources available for help.  

“What I want people to know is it pretty much should be considered a health risk in our community,” Vargas said. “I think it goes right in there with the other risks of low education and lack of employment.”

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