Where people die from opioid overdoses in El Paso County 

Opioid ground zero

The recent heavy concentration of opioid overdose deaths in the South Nevada Avenue area doesn’t surprise Danny Mientka. One of several developers trying to overhaul that stretch of old motels and pawn shops, Mientka is reminded daily of the scourge of drugs.

“I’ve never seen anything like what we have,” he says. “We’re seeing the sale, distribution and consumption of heroin and other drugs right on the street on Nevada and Ramona [avenues], right in the heart of our urban renewal plan. We’re finding lots of needles, people consuming and selling drugs.”

New maps created by the El Paso County Coroner’s Office dramatically depict how the opioid epidemic has touched wide swaths of Colorado Springs, most notably the South Nevada and adjacent Ivywild areas.
“When you see it in print in this way, there’s something startling and enlightening about it,” says Deputy Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly, who created the maps. “When you see it in your neighborhood, the places where you go to restaurants, you say, ‘Holy cow, this is happening here.’”

The maps are based on locations where people died from drug overdoses as well as sites from which people were taken by ambulance to hospitals where they died. No hospital locations are represented. The maps include all opioid deaths, whether by accidental overdose or suicide, and whether obtained legally or illegally. The numbers include deaths from all opioids, including heroin, oxycodone and others.

The New York Times reported in June that more than 59,000 people died of overdoses in 2016, making drug overdose the leading cause of death among Americans under age 50. Last week, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency.

Locally, opioid deaths jumped by about 50 percent in 2014 compared to the prior year — from 66 to 93. The next year saw a small rise to 97. But last year, the number took a 24-percent leap, to 120. Through June of this year, 47 opioid overdose deaths had been reported to the Coroner’s Office.
From heroin alone, deaths quadrupled in just five years, from 16 in 2011 to 50 last year. Through June, there have been 30, Kelly says.

Calling overdose deaths “the second great plague of the modern era” — the other was the HIV-AIDS epidemic — Kelly says El Paso County hasn’t escaped the wave of addiction and death that’s flooded the country.

“We’re seeing this nearly every single day, and we’re not New York City or Los Angeles,” he says. “This is blowing up in multiple parts of Colorado Springs.”

As recently as 2015, there were no “red” areas on the maps, which signify a concentration of opioid deaths. But by 2016, a deep red pocket emerged south of downtown. “It started out small pockets, then it coalesced into one large blob,” Kelly notes. “The epicenter shifts from a more central-to-Westside area to South Nevada and the Ivywild area.”

Sitting on the edge of that red area is the Springs Rescue Mission, 5 W. Las Vegas St., and Dorchester Park, a hangout for the city’s homeless people. Obviously, homelessness isn’t synonymous with drug use, but a U.S. Housing and Urban Development survey conducted in January 2016 showed one in five homeless people had a chronic substance use disorder.

The Rescue Mission serves “anybody who comes to our door, regardless of their circumstances, and that includes people suffering through addiction,” says Mission spokesperson Thomas Voss. He says 25 to 30 percent of those who seek the Mission’s help struggle with some sort of drug abuse. He says he doesn’t know if anyone has died at the Mission, but he acknowledged the Mission calls ambulances and the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team for assistance with drug users from time to time.

CSPD spokesperson Lt. Howard Black says the maps didn’t surprise officers, but they serve as a graphic reminder. “There’s already been an awareness to this issue throughout the city,” he says. “To actually see in a graph just how explicit that is in some areas of the city causes us to take a closer look in the South Nevada area.”

Black says police hope the maps will lead to “additional strategies.” “This isn’t a police issue,” he says. “This is a community issue.”

For Mientka, the map underscores the reason a large swath of South Nevada has been targeted for a retread by the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority (CSURA). The Chief and Cheyenne motels — once big hangouts for drug users and crime — have been razed, he says, and other buildings are soon to follow.

“It’s disturbing,” he says. “It’s further reason we need to do the urban renewal plan and out-populate the dysfunction that’s there. It’s going to take new development and consumer activity to get people to shop, dine and walk in the corridor.”

Those efforts will span several years and bring Natural Grocers, Tokyo Joe’s and Zoës Kitchen, along with other new businesses, says CSURA Executive Director Jariah Walker. “Obviously, we don’t have the ability or the mechanisms in place on our end to stop something like drug use,” he says. “We can only control what we can control.”

Which raises the question of whether the Nevada overhaul will only serve to displace the problem to another spot.
Perhaps, says Mary Steiner with the Community Health Partnership, who coordinates the Coalition for Prevention, Addiction Education and Recovery (CPAR). The coalition, formed in March 2016, is composed of various nonprofits, law enforcement, hospitals and others working to find ways to stem opioid abuse.

The coalition hopes to soon deliver three or four action recommendations to the Colorado Health Foundation, which is funding the effort. One step already is underway — educating doctors who prescribe opioids and opiates. Another is raising public awareness and changing the traditional view of drug addiction as a moral failure to the disease that it is, she says.

Opioid addiction, she adds, knows no socioeconomic boundary. “It’s everywhere,” she says, adding, “There is no silver bullet. This is going to take silver buckshot to address this problem.”


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