A West Side agency that coordinates substance use harm-reduction programs on Chicago’s West Side earned a federal $50,000 grant to bolster its programs to distribute free Narcan, test strips, syringes and other equipment – strategies research shows help keep people who use drugs alive.

“We have to treat people with substance use this order with dignity and make sure that we all recognize this as a health issue and not a criminal issue,” said State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-8th).

The West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force has focused on preventing fatal overdoses and reducing the harm caused by substance use since 2019 after it was convened by Ford. The push came to prevent deaths in Chicago’s West Side neighborhoods, which report some of the highest deaths by overdose rates in Illinois.

 A year before the task force was created, Austin and North Lawndale were two of the communities with the highest number of overdose deaths according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. Amid a record number of overdose deaths in Cook County, the task force’s approach to substance use is an example of direct intervention programs that reduce harm, Ford said. Just last month, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office reported 2,000 opioid deaths in 2022.

“Fatal overdoses are preventable,” Ford said. ‘Today, even with the potency of fentanyl, people don’t have to die from a fentanyl or heroin overdose.”

 The award comes from the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. The award recognizes the group’s work to eliminate systemic barriers to behavioral health resources, lauding the West Side group’s street outreach program for people who use drugs. Their education programs also help break down the stigma associated with substance use.

“It’s a recognition by the federal government that we have a serious opioid epidemic on the West Side of Chicago,” Ford said. “They recognize the strong collaboration of the task force with other partners like federal, state, county, city [agencies] and other nonprofits and safety-net organizations.”

Substance use disorder continues to affect communities where free and immediate access to the overdose-reversing medication naloxone, known as Narcan, is the difference between life and death. Last month, advocates warned that fentanyl is present in 80% of the overdoses in the Chicago area. They also have seen an increase in the presence of veterinary tranquilizer xylazine in the West Side illicit drug supply.

“These are people that are not going to be a pickup a phone and call for help,” Ford said.  “How often do you get someone going to the problem directly?”

The task force uses a boots-on-the-ground model. Outreach workers locate people who use drugs on the streets, distribute naloxone and provide access to medication-assisted recovery, health services and social services such as housing. It does it by working with a network of more than 60 community-based agencies, groups, healthcare providers and service providers.

Earlier this year, the task force also helped install nearly two dozen free Narcan dispensers, known as Narcan newsstands across the West Side. At these locations, anyone can access Narcan at any time of the day, for free.