An Ugly Death Print
Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
August 2017

The opioid crisis hits close to home

IPix_EleazarMelendez_8-17n the middle of the block along NE 1st Avenue downtown, in an area I won’t describe in too much detail lest the tip spread too far, there’s a phantom street parking spot. A mess of street signs that seem to indicate parking is not allowed generally means the space is vacant. But another, different mess of signs indicates the opposite, making the spot essentially immune to enforcement from parking authorities.

The result gives this humble correspondent and perhaps a few others who are in on the secret the luxury of a virtually guaranteed place to park, even during the busiest times.

Cruising down to this usual spot on a Saturday afternoon last month, a distressing sight took up the normally empty site. Beyond the police tape marking its perimeter, the officers milling about, and the cruisers partially blocking the roadway, drivers who craned their necks would have seen a body on the ground. Sprawled halfway between the pavement and the sidewalk, with blood and vomit completing the horrific picture, this was the latest victim of the public health crisis that’s increasingly played out in grisly scenes downtown.

It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know our nation -- and our state and city -- is being ravaged by an opioid epidemic. It’s not the pill mill crisis that rolled through Florida a decade ago, in which a few unscrupulous doctors caused the despair of thousands, but the result is the much the same. This time the major drug problem is heroin and similar poisons.

Many have been directly affected by the grief of facing down addiction and death, from a family member or a close friend. For the rest of us, scenes like the one by the parking space downtown bring the issue home.

As much empathy as we try to have, seeing is understanding. And understanding becomes visceral when it interrupts such an otherwise insignificant activity as hunting for a parking space. A million deaths on television is a statistic. A single death in front of you is a tragedy.

We’ve had plenty of those television deaths, some truly heart-wrenching. Last month, Miami reeled at the news that a ten-year-old boy had died after he came in contact with fentanyl, a much more powerful cousin of street heroin that’s blamed for causing many overdoses. How the child came into contact with the drug, ostensibly at a neighborhood pool party, is still being investigated.

Meanwhile, public health experts, elected officials, police officers, and first responders, in particular the firefighter-paramedics that are at the front lines in responding to emergency medical calls, have been sounding alarm bells for at least a year. Asking for more resources and attention to the crisis, they’ve cited the increase in overdose deaths -- up by more than 300 percent since 2013 -- and the hundreds of doses of life-saving antidote Narcan that medical crews are going through every month to stop those deaths from happening.

In a reaction to dozens of people dying, sometimes literally in the middle of the street, over the space of a few months last year, Miami leaders passed an emergency ordinance that forced owners of vacant spaces where addicts tended to mill about in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood to put up fencing, reducing their concentration over several blocks. Stepped up police presence now makes what used to be Overtown’s riskiest parts surprisingly quiet, even at night. The removal of a homeless tent encampment on private property near the Florida East Coast railway has further made it more difficult for homeless addicts to congregate, edging out the unseemly spectacle of addled drug users from the streets of Overtown.

But combined with the development of vacant properties that had previously served as impromptu crack houses, the effort has moved the most visible aspects of the epidemic into the heart of downtown.

Downtowners have already seen at least some of the scourge of the epidemic affect their quality of life over the past two years, and have notably mobilized on the perception that the homeless here are now both much more visible and much more desperate.

Seeing or hearing about an overdose on the street nearby is not a complete rarity any more. A study by the Miami Herald of more than 200 overdoses in Miami-Dade County in 2015 and 2016 found that while the “hot zone” was in Ovetown, a few addicts died in Edgewater’s Margaret Pace Park and across the street from Bayfront Park. A handful more were found dead in and around construction sites in Brickell.

Sadly, the initial reaction by some has been to push the public health emergency elsewhere. In neighboring Broward and Palm Beach counties, for example, resources have been strained and morgues have overflowed with victims. But somewhat troublingly, the immediate reflex has been to push against the rehab facilities that have multiplied to try to get people out of the cycle of drug dependency.

Locals have focused on the fact the facilities are bringing in addicts for treatment from elsewhere, settling on the default position of “not in my backyard.”

If that continues, more will unfortunately end up sprawled and dying in the streets of downtown.

Those at the highest levels do seem to have taken notice. One of the very few slivers of hope around the dysfunctional conversation in Washington that congressional Republicans are having on health care, for example, is the consensus that money needs to somehow flow to stanch the bleeding nationwide from the epidemic. The promises on the topic so far been cynical and highly transactional. But perhaps they’ll evolve into something positive over the next few weeks.

In Florida, the state declared a public health emergency in May that allows it to tap into more than $54 million in federal grant money to pay for prevention, treatment, and recovery services. Why it took years of deaths and many months of calls from local officials to move forward, other than Tallahassee’s general aversion to spending money, is an entirely different bundle.

It would be tempting for downtowners to reel back in distress at seeing people die on the streets. While addiction doesn’t really discriminate based on economic status, race, or ethnicity, and can affect any family, some will find it easier to turn away and assume that this is someone else’s problem and could never happen to them.

As the crisis continues, downtowners need to be aware and compassionate to those suffering, and keep pushing for the issue to be a priority. People are dying in our streets and parks. It’s something we can’t ignore.


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