Philly’s homeless population is seeing a dramatic spike in opioid deaths

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Deaths from Philadelphians experiencing homelessness more than tripled between 2009 and 2018, a dramatic increase that public health experts attribute to the opioid crisis.

New data from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) and the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services (OHS) shows that the number of homeless deaths rose from 43 in 2009 to 132 in 2018, an increase that far outpaces national growth in America’s street homeless population that happened during the same time period.

The report, which is available online at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s latest issue of CHART, says that currently, drug-related fatalities account for nearly 60 percent of deaths among Philadelphians experiencing homelessness, increasing from 37 percent in 2009-2015 to 59 percent from 2016-2018.

Of all current drug-related deaths among Philadelphia’s homeless, 86 percent involved opioids, with nearly three quarters involving the hyper potent synthetic opioid fentanyl.

According to Dr. Indra Cidambi, a board-certified addiction psychiatrist and the medical director of Center for Network Therapy, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, and when injected it reaches the brain so fast that people often lose consciousness or overdose before they can pull the needle from their arm.

“Opioids are known as the lion of drugs because they are the hardest to quit,” Dr. Cidambi tells Metro. “Not only is the high delivered by the drug’s potency a factor, the withdrawal symptoms are so acute and severe that individuals addicted to opiates are afraid to face them, so they continue use. The result is that individuals addicted to opiates will go to great lengths to feed their addiction – lying, manipulating, cheating and stealing. It is easy to see how an addiction to opiates can bring anyone to the streets.”

Mayor Jim Kenney pointed to this recent data as further evidence of the tragic impact that the nationwide opioid epidemic continues to have in local neighborhoods. “This will never be acceptable, and it’s why the city has taken extensive local action to fight against this national crisis, both through the Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic and the Philadelphia Resilience Project, as well as through suing opioid manufacturers. While we’ve made important progress, we have much more work ahead.”

Philly officials released the data as the city observed Homeless Memorial Day, which was marked Thursday by an event at Thomas Paine Plaza.

Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said the opioid crisis is both exacerbating the homelessness problem in Philadelphia and increasing the number of homeless people who die of drug overdoses. The health department is working with many other city agencies to reduce the number of people who become addicted and help those who are addicted – homeless or not – begin drug treatment.

According to Dr. Cidambi, the most effective treatment for opioid addiction has proven to be Medication-Assisted treatment (MAT), which involves prescribing certain medications to eliminate withdrawal symptoms from opiates and cravings, helping patients to engage in therapy. 

“Fortunately, this administration has not only increased funding for addiction treatment, funding largely has been made available only if treatment includes MAT,” she said. “This increased funding has made access to care easier for the indigent population without health insurance. Information about treatment options should be available at all community centers.

Since 2016, Philadelphia has amped up its defense against the opioid crisis by offering more treatment beds and low barrier treatment options. City-led groups like Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic and the new Philadelphia Resilience Project take specific aim at the drug problem, as do various local campaigns that spread awareness about treatment options and ways to reduce overdose deaths.

The report sheds light on demographics, showing that males are disproportionately represented, accounting for about 80 percent of all homeless deaths. In terms of race, 48 percent of all Philadelphians experiencing homelessness who died between 2016 and 2018 were non-Hispanic white, 38 percent were non-Hispanic Black, and 13 percent were Hispanic/Latino.

Anyone seeking treatment for addiction is urged to call 888-545-2600 where help is available at all times. Philadelphians can also request a street homeless outreach team at any time, night or day, anywhere in the city by calling 215-232-1984 if they see someone who is homeless in need of shelter or other services.


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