Coalition Testifies on Opioid Overdoses Among NYC’s Homeless Population

On Tuesday, Coalition for the Homeless and The Legal Aid Society presented testimony before the New  York City Council’s Committees on General Welfare and Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction about opioid overdoses among NYC’s homeless population.

The nationwide opioid epidemic has not left any community untouched, including homeless New Yorkers. Drug-related deaths were the leading cause of death among homeless men in NYC for the past three years, and among homeless women for the past five years. Drug overdoses claimed the lives of 86 homeless New Yorkers in FY 2017. The Department of Homeless Services reported 81 overdose incidents (including non-fatal incidents) in the first four months of FY 2018, up from 12 within the same period in FY 2017. These heartbreaking statistics underscore the urgent need for much more effective access to treatment and harm reduction services. As the Coalition and Legal Aid testified:

The unavailability of treatment and harm reduction services remains a barrier to successful engagement among homeless individuals. It is vital that a sufficient number of providers in licensed settings be trained to prescribe buprenorphine. The City should also encourage more medical professionals serving in community-based settings to receive the necessary training. The City and State should partner to increase community-based care options, with appropriate licensing structures, so clients have ample access to medication-assisted treatment. Clients who need or are prescribed buprenorphine or other opioid treatment medication should receive shelter placements consistent with this need, and not be assigned to shelters with abstinence requirements that disallow medication-based treatment.

Meanwhile, we continue to see the NYPD using counter-productive tactics. Criminal possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree (for very small amounts) is still one of the 5 most frequently charged crimes, meaning that police are still much more often arresting people for drug possession than diverting them to treatment centers. For example, Legal Aid staff have observed a trend in Brooklyn where officers arrest people coming and going from a methadone clinic to get easy collars.

This approach will not be successful. The sheer magnitude of the opioid crisis demands that the City take bold but productive steps. We recommend that the City reinforce effective harm reduction strategies, such as opioid antagonist training and distribution, syringe exchanges, and fentanyl testing. We also encourage the City and State to license and open supervised injection facilities to reduce the risk of death among people using opioids. Initiatives to reduce opioid use in the shelter system should use peer support networks to help establish and foster the personal connections needed to enhance client safety.

The full testimony can be read here.