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DENVER (KDVR) — The City of Denver told FOX31 drug use is one of the biggest reasons why homeless sweeps are necessary. Last year, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment collected more than 4,400 needles from homeless encampments.

But the most telling statistics about drugs and homelessness come from the Denver morgue. Sixty-nine homeless people died from a drug overdose in 2020. That is 69 out of 160 homeless deaths in Denver. That means 43% of all homeless deaths in the city last year were from an overdose making it the leading cause of death in 2020. So far this year, overdoses account for 32% of all homeless deaths, 39 overdoses as of Sept. 13.

“We’re in the worst overdose crisis we’ve ever seen in the United States, Colorado, and in Denver,” said Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center. HRAC is Colorado’s largest public health agency that works specifically with people who inject drugs.

“People who use drugs are the true first responders in the midst of this overdose crisis. We give out naloxone, or Narcan so they can save each other’s lives,” said Raville.

According to Raville, giving naloxone or Narcan directly to homeless people who then inject the life-saving drug into a fellow homeless person helped reverse 719 overdoses in Denver last year.

As of Oct. 21, Raville said the number of lives saved has already climbed to 729.

Advantage of Narcan kits

“You know I wouldn’t be here at least 12 times if it wasn’t for Narcan,” said Betsy Craft, a self-described recovering opioid addict.

The 39-year-old was once homeless and living out of her car. In February of 2019, she overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl. “I overdosed while driving and crashed my car and I hit a tree and someone called 911 and the paramedics came and they administered Narcan,” said Craft.

Now living a life of recovery, she told the Problem Solvers that Colorado needs to increase Narcan funding.

As a peer support specialist who works with the homeless population, she once saved a man with Narcan herself. Now she has her own standing order for 120 kits of Narcan but because of a supply shortage, only expects to receive 60 Narcan kits by mid-November.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told FOX31 that from September 2020 to September 2021 it provided 52,245 doses of Narcan to 90 agencies statewide; but admitted in an email, “demand for naloxone is outstripping the funding currently available.”

“So that’s the problem for me is I don’t have a consistent supply of naloxone or Narcan in the worst overdose crisis that we’ve ever seen,” said Raville, who has had to spend $30,000 of grant money to purchase naloxone because her free supply from the state no longer exists.

Fentanyl leading cause of drug overdoses

“The number one substance usage treatment admission requirement in Denver, Colorado and the United States is to be alive. I can’t get people into treatment if they’re not alive,” said Raville.

It’s not just a homeless issue. Drug overdoses across Denver have been growing each year.

In 2018, the city recorded 209 fatal overdoses, in 2019 the number was 225, and in 2020 overdoses jumped to 370.

Fentanyl is the biggest reason why.

  • In 2018, 9% of overdose deaths had fentanyl on board in Denver.
  • In 2019, 25% of overdoses had fentanyl on board.
  • By 2020, 44% of all overdose deaths had fentanyl on board.

“We’re seeing fentanyl in heroin, meth, pills and now in Denver’s cocaine,” said Raville.

Raville gives homeless drug addicts fentanyl stirps so they can test their drugs before they inject them to see if it’s been laced with fentanyl.

“This is a game-changer but here’s the thing, and I really want to be clear with you, in six months I probably won’t be giving out these strips anymore. Why? Because everything is going to have fentanyl in it,” said Raville.

Need for overdose prevention sites

It’s exactly why Raville told the Problem Solvers the most effective thing Denver could do is open an overdose prevention site. They exist in Canada and nine other countries.

Craft said if she’d been allowed to inject herself in a safe place under the eyes of a medical professional she might not have overdosed so many times. She added it’s where she could’ve sought substance abuse treatment a lot sooner than she finally did.

“People deserve an opportunity to recover and dead drug users can’t recover. You can’t recover if you’re dead,” said Craft.

“In the last 20-30 years no one’s ever died of an overdose at one of these places because there’s a trained professional there to recognize and respond and the same cannot be said for Starbucks, Home Depot, 7-Eleven, cars, alleys, and parks,” said Raville.

Denver’s city council passed a measure in 2018 that would’ve paved the way for an overdose prevention site but the effort also required support from state lawmakers and there have never been enough votes in the state legislature for approval.