By Mayor Michael Hancock
The worst of the COVID pandemic is largely behind us, but the economic and social consequences will linger for years. Our recovery has also been impeded by another public health crisis: the epidemic of opioid misuse impacting both rural and urban communities.
No community in our city has been immune from these impacts, including our Northside and Globeville, Elyria, Swansea neighborhoods. Fentanyl is devastating families and is more visible in our city than it was a few years ago. As we near the end of the year, 160 Denver residents have died due to fentanyl poisoning– nearly half of all overdose deaths in Denver this year.
One–third of all overdose deaths in our city have been lives stolen from our Latino community. Even small amounts of fentanyl can steal someone’s life, and it’s being used to lace other drugs, posing an even graver risk. Fentanyl and methamphetamines are also fueling crime and making it harder to help those living on our streets.
Putting the label “homelessness” on this problem doesn’t accurately describe the challenge we’re facing, or the solutions needed to resolve it. More broken lives make it harder and costlier to get unhoused individuals suffering from addiction into stable, safer and healthier environments.
My administration has been working to deploy more resources to shore up capacity with addiction service providers, taking new approaches to connecting those suffering from addiction to treatment — including our Wellness Winnie mobile health unit and the expansion of the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) Program — and bolstering our public health programs to stem rising opioid overdoses, such as increasing the availability and distribution of naloxone and drug testing resources.
Denver helped lead a coalition of cities and counties from across Colorado and the nation that, in partnership with Attorney General Phil Weiser, is holding drug companies accountable for deceptive practices that flooded our communities with more potent opioids in the first place.
The fentanyl crisis is part of the broader and more widespread challenge of behavioral health. For decades, resources directed at behavioral health have languished at the national level, leaving local communities to pick up the pieces and support an increasing number of very sick people. Stigmas around behavioral health grew and left people unwilling to seek help for fear of being abandoned.
Inequities in our healthcare systems have left many communities behind, particularly communities of color. Earlier this year, I met with families who lost loved ones to fentanyl. Their pain is burned into my memory and prompted my call for needed changes in state laws on criminal possession of fentanyl and fueled my administration’s focus on resources and priorities. It’s clear that tackling this issue will take a combine enforcement and treatment approach.
In my 2023 budget, approved by City Council a few weeks ago, significant funding–$8.4 million–is included to recruit 188 new police officers to help reduce crime, shorten response times and keep our neighborhoods safe. My budget also includes $20 million of our American Rescue Plan Act funds to enhance and expand wellness services, with a specific focus on treatment and recovery.
Over the next two years, Denver will receive our first $8 million from the national opioid settlement. We’re working to see these dollars directed toward supporting service providers and improving capacity of treatment programs, including expanding Denver’s behavioral health provider network to improve availability of services; investing in telehealth and other mobile integrated approaches to care and treatment delivery; and improving the city’s substance misuse response with supportive housing, residential treatment, medical detox services, peer support services and counseling.
Our public health officials are also preparing to expand services, including medicated assisted treatment in our jails. We’re working to support a full continuum of care for people experiencing addiction, including covering costs when personal finances or insurance fall short, and expanding mobile response teams to reach people where they are. Abandoning sick people to live and die on the street is inhumane. Open and flagrant drug use in our public spaces is unacceptable.
It’s beyond time to bring as much determination to the opioid epidemic as we did to the COVID pandemic. Denver is a compassionate community. This crisis begs for more compassion. A policy of compassion must also have consequences for those who refuse treatment. Our budget is a step in this direction that I hope will save lives and make our streets safer. Just as we came through COVID, I believe we will come through this crisis if we are driven by compassion that is firm.
Mayor Michael B. Hancock was first elected to office in 2010 and is in his third term.