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Study shows Chicago’s West Side is epicenter for heroin hospitalization & arrest

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While widespread heroin use in Chicago’s suburbs has been well documented, people are more likely to suffer negative health and criminal justice impacts due to heroin on Chicago’s West Side than in any other part of the city or the Chicagoland region.

Long considered to be a place where many of the region’s heroin addicts simply travel to and drop in for a fix, the city’s West Side actually is a hotbed for heroin hospitalizations, arrests and deaths, a new Roosevelt University study has found.

Released Wednesday, Aug. 31, on Overdose Awareness Day, in timing with the announcement of the formation of a new community-based West Side Heroin Task Force headed by Representative La Shawn K. Ford (8th) , the Roosevelt University study is entitled  “Hidden in Plain Sight: Heroin’s Impact on Chicago’s West Side.”

The report points to disturbing signs that heroin, in more ways than one, is a major health problem for the local West Side community, including its East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Humboldt Park neighborhoods.

“The availability of heroin is rising across the country, and the West Side has borne the brunt of the crisis in terms of addiction, overdose deaths and arrests,” said State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, in announcing the new task force that will seek to address the city’s West Side heroin crisis during a news conference at the state’s Thompson Center.

Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, the study’s author and a resident of the West side, said the research showed Chicago’s West side is a “the real epicenter for heroin- related health issues and deaths.”

“It’s a situation that few have been talking about or seriously addressing, except for arresting folks. But you cannot arrest your way out of this health crisis,” Kane-Willis said.

Among findings, the study concludes that:

  • Nearly 1 out of 4 hospitalizations in Illinois involving opioids, including heroin, occurs on Chicago’s West Side.
  • These West Side hospitalizations make up approximately 35 percent of the Chicago total, and are astronomical when compared to hospitalizations on Chicago’s North Side, which make up 7 percent, and Chicago’s South Side, with 20 percent.
  • Meanwhile, the majority of those being hospitalized for opioids are African Americans, who represented a whopping 83 percent of opioid hospitalization cases being reported on Chicago’s West Side.

The study looked at heroin deaths by race, finding that African Americans in Illinois are far more likely to die from an overdose than whites and that the rate of death increased significantly over one year. Chicago heroin overdoses and deaths, meanwhile, far outpaced death rates reported in suburban Cook and the region’s collar counties.

              At the same time, Chicago arrest records showed police are targeting the West Side for heroin possession arrests. For instance, Chicago’s East Garfield Park had 20 times the rate of heroin possession arrests as did the city of Chicago as a whole. West Garfield Park’s arrest rate for heroin possession was a whopping 2,000 times the rate reported in Lincoln Park, according to the study. Meanwhile, four West Side Chicago neighborhoods, including East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Humboldt Park had more arrests for heroin possession than any other neighborhood in 2015. Heroin arrests in Chicago’s West Side Austin neighborhood were sixth highest among city neighborhoods reporting, the study shows.

            The report calls for increasing the availability of treatment, naloxone the overdose reversal drugs and lowering the penalty for individuals who possess drugs under one gram. Changing the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor is supported by 78% of voters and is expected to save Illinois $58M over three years.

"People seem to understand that heroin use is a public health problem and it needs to be treated like one , not just in the suburbs but on the West side too.  We need more treatment – not arrests --to get ahead of this crisis", said Kane-Willis who found capacity for publically-funded treatment of heroin disorders continuing to decline, while hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise

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