Courtesy City of Chicago

Over the past decade, West Side communities have seen the highest rates of opioid overdoses and deaths in Chicago. 

This was something that West Side nonprofits have been trying to tackle for years. Organizations such as the currently Austin-based Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center, 5002 W. Madison St., sent out outreach teams to offer treatment to West Siders who are struggling with addiction and help them get into treatment. Now, the city is taking a page out of the nonprofits’ book with its Opioid Response Team.

Launched at the start of 2023 as part of the Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement (CARE) program spearheaded by the Chicago Department of Public Health, each team includes a Chicago Fire Department community paramedic and a Peer Recovery Specialist from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health’s Community Outreach Intervention project. The team follows up with people who got treated for drug overdoses and asks if they want help. If they agree, the team does regular follow-ups, and it’s not unusual for the teams to end up offering services to their friends and loved ones as well.

The program is being launched on a pilot basis in the East Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park community areas. Sarah Richardson, a CDPH Grant Research Specialist, who runs the program, said the three communities were chosen because recent data shows they have the highest rates of overdoses in the city. She said that it is still too early to draw conclusions about the team’s effectiveness, but the current trends and the experiences in other cities make her optimistic.

The city launched the CARES program in 2021 to ensure that individuals who experience mental health crises and have 911 called on them will get medical help that responders work to de-escalate volatile situations. It started with two Multidisciplinary Response Teams – one serving the South Side’s Auburn-Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods, and one serving North Side’s Uptown and Lakeview neighborhoods. Since then, other teams launched in other parts of the city. The Opioid Response Team is the first of its kind in the city and the first CARES team on the West Side.

Richardson said having a Peer Recovery Specialist on the team proved to be vital. Such specialists struggled with addiction themselves and are trained to help people who face those struggles now. 

“There are often people who’re not ready to enter treatment, not ready to change [their] substance use, but they’re ready to talk to someone,” Richardson said.

Every weekday, the team looks at reports of non-fatal overdoses and tries to contact the individuals either the next day, or, if the overdose happened over the weekend, on Monday. The team talks to them about what happened and offers harm reduction tools, such as overdose reversing Narcan or test strips that allow them to test drugs for fentanyl. The idea is that, if people are going to use drugs, the team can do something to reduce the odds that they’d get sick or die.  

If people want to get into treatment, or get help with some other need, such as housing, the team tries to help with it. The team has a van that can take them to a shelter or a treatment facility right away.

The team follows up with every resident they helped within a week and within a month to make sure they got the services the residents needed.

Richardson said that, almost four months into the program, it was too early to draw any conclusions. But she said that experience in other cities showed that people who take part in these kinds of programs are less likely to overdose in the future and more likely to get into treatment. And Richardson said one positive outcome the team has already observed was that, when they talk to people who overdosed, they find friends, roommates or family members who also struggle with addiction.

When asked whether CDPH would bring Opioid Response Teams, or other CARE Teams, to other West Side communities, Richardson didn’t rule it out.

“We’re interested in expanding, we just don’t have a firm timeline,” she said. “And all expansion by the CARE program and the mental health teams is driven by the data based on the need.”

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...