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Overdose deaths rising among Denver's unhoused population, medical examiner data shows

Homeless camp in Denver
Posted at 5:32 PM, Nov 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-29 00:57:28-05

DENVER — Nearly two-thirds of the city’s unhoused population who died this year suffered from a drug-related overdose, according to the latest medical examiner data.

The alarming number highlights a disturbing trend that advocates for people experiencing homelessness are worried about.

Amy Beck is a busy woman. In between providing outreach to people living at encampments across Denver, you can find Beck sitting in the front row at a weekly city council meeting on homelessness and migrant issues.

“Just going in, attending and hearing what different council members are saying is really important,” said Beck. “Because sometimes they're not aware of everything that's going on or they don't have a perspective from the streets.”

Something Beck wishes city leaders would pay more attention to is the growing number of people dying on Denver streets.

According to the latest data from the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner, 260 people experiencing homelessness died this year. Of those, just over 170 died from drug-related overdoses. Last year, about 120 people experiencing homelessness in Denver died from drug-related overdoses.

“What I've really noticed is that we, in Denver and all over the country, have a very tainted drug supply,” Beck said. “So, they're being exposed to drugs that they wouldn't usually use.”

Those numbers do not include four outdoor investigations from over the weekend. The medical examiner’s office said the deaths occurred when temperatures were below freezing.

It will take several weeks for the toxicology results to come in, but the medical examiner's office said the victims appeared to have suffered drug overdoses, specifically from fentanyl and methamphetamine.

While the medical examiner found no signs of hypothermia, Becks suspects the cold weather played a factor in a different way.

“Well, what I would have to say is that people use often as a coping mechanism for very severe cold weather,” said Beck.

That’s why she was disappointed when Governor Jared Polis squashed efforts by some in his own party to allow cities like Denver to establish overdose prevention centers, where people would be allowed to use illicit drugs while being supervised by medical staff. Polis threatened to veto a bill that Democrats were crafting in a legislative interim committee that would allow for the sites.

A spokesman for the governor told our partners at the Denver Post that he opposed the bill because of “great uncertainty” about the facilities conflicting with federal laws. After the governor’s statement, the committee killed the bill.

In 2018, the Denver City Council passed an ordinance that would allow for overdose prevention centers if the state gave its approval. Polis’ veto threat means that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Critics of overdose prevention centers say they will just encourage more drug use and crime.

“What you're going to have is a homeless population congregating around one of these sites, which will attract drug dealers, prostitution and violent crime. It has a serious negative impact on the community around it,” former U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn said.

Beck said she’s disappointed overdose prevention centers aren’t an option for people who are using drugs.

“It will save lives if we create those spaces for people,” said Beck. “It's another way to get them indoors and get them safe.”

Beck said she supports a proposal from Denver City Councilwoman Sarah Parady that would ban encampment sweeps and require warming centers to open whenever temperatures fall below 32 degrees.

“If we offered them a place off the streets, then perhaps we wouldn't see these numbers of overdoses during severe weather events happening in such a short period of time,” said Beck.

Until politicians can figure it out, Beck plans to keep advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves.

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