LOS ANGELES (AP) — In a filthy alley behind a Los Angeles donut shop, Ryan Smith convulsed from a high of fentanyl — going from moments of sleep to bouts of violent chills on a hot summer day. ‘summer.
When Brandice Josey, another homeless drug addict, leaned over and puffed out a puff of fentanyl smoke in an act of charity, Smith sat up and slowly opened her lip to inhale the vapor as if it was the remedy for his problems.
Smith, dressed in a grimy yellow T-shirt that read “Good Vibes Only”, lay on his backpack and dozed the rest of the afternoon on the asphalt, unfazed by the stench of the rotten food and human waste that permeated the air.
For too many drug addicts, the sleep that follows a puff of fentanyl is permanent. The highly addictive and potentially deadly drug has become a plague across America and is wreaking havoc on the growing number of people living on the streets of Los Angeles.
Nearly 2,000 homeless people died in the city from April 2020 to March 2021, a 56% increase from the previous year, according to a report by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. . Overdose was the leading cause of death, killing more than 700 people.
The use of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is inexpensive to produce and often sold as is or mixed with other drugs, has exploded. Because it is 50 times more potent than heroin, even a small dose can be deadly.
It quickly became the nation’s deadliest drug, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Two-thirds of the 107,000 overdose deaths in 2021 have been attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The drug toll extends far beyond the streets.
Jennifer Catano, 27, has the names of two children tattooed on her wrists, but she hasn’t seen them in several years. They live with his mother.
“My mom doesn’t think it’s a good idea because she thinks it’s going to hurt the kids because I’m not ready to rehab,” Catano said.
She overdosed three times and went through seven or eight rehabs.
“It’s scary to get out of it,” she said. “Withdrawals are really bad.”
Catano wandered into a tube station near MacArthur Park, desperate to sell a bottle of Downey’s fabric softener and a Coleman camping chair she stole from a nearby store.
Drug abuse can be a cause or a symptom of homelessness. The two can also intersect with mental illness.
A 2019 report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found that about a quarter of all homeless adults in Los Angeles County have mental illnesses and 14% have a substance use disorder. This analysis only counted people with severe permanent or long-term illness. Taking a broader interpretation of the same data, the Los Angeles Times found approximately 51% suffered from mental illnesses and 46% suffered from substance use disorders.
Billions of dollars are spent to reduce homelessness in California, but treatment is not always funded.
A controversial bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom could improve that by forcing people with serious mental illness into treatment. But they must be diagnosed with a certain disorder such as schizophrenia and drug addiction is not enough.
Help is available but it is overwhelmed by the scale of the misery on the streets.
Rita Richardson, field supervisor at LA Door, a city drug prevention program that works with people convicted of crimes, distributes socks, water, condoms, snacks, clean needles and flyers at the same hotspots Monday through Friday. She hopes the consistency of her visits will encourage people to seek help.
“Then hopefully the light bulb will go on. It might not happen this year. It might not happen next year. It could take a number of years,” said Richardson, a former homeless drug addict “My goal is to bring them from darkness to light.”
Parts of Los Angeles have become scenes of despair with men and women sprawled on sidewalks, curled up on benches and slumped in squalid alleys. Some huddle to smoke the drug, others inject it.
Armando Rivera, 33, puffed white puffs to lure drug addicts to the alley where Smith was sleeping. He needed to sell drugs to buy more. Those who didn’t have enough money to support their habit, hovered around him, hoping for a free shot. Rivera showed no mercy.
Catano was unable to sell the chair, but she eventually sold the fabric softener to a street vendor for $5.
That was enough money for another high.
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