More homeless people in Sedgwick County are dying due to fentanyl poisoning

By Kylie Cameron | KMUW

Sedgwick County is on track to see almost five times more people die this year than previous years.

Homelessness has changed over the past ten years, says Officer Nate Schwiethale with the Wichita Police’s Homeless Outreach Team.

When Schwiethale started on the team, he mostly encountered people he says were alcoholics or mentally ill. But now, addiction to meth and other opioids – often laced with fentanyl – have gripped the community.

That’s led to an increase in overdoses in the unhoused community, putting Sedgwick County on track to see almost five times more people die this year than previous years.

“We do a memorial in December each year. It’s a national homeless person’s memorial,” Schwiethale said. “This year, we’re not done counting yet, but we’ve already passed 40. And we’re probably going to end up getting to 50 homeless deaths, and a majority of those are overdoses, especially fentanyl.”

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, at least three people died from suspected fentanyl poisoning at a homeless encampment in south Wichita.

“They thought they were taking one thing, and they maybe were, but it also got laced with fentanyl that they didn’t know about,” Schwiethale said.

“People are mixing stuff together, and a lot of times … the homeless community doesn’t even know that and know what they’re taking sometimes. And so that’s scary.”

Fentanyl poisoning has also bled into homeless shelters in Wichita, including Union Rescue Mission, a low-barrier men’s shelter.

“The shelter is kind of a microcosm of what’s happening out on the streets,” said Doug Nolte, CEO of Union Rescue Mission.

Over the summer, three people at the shelter overdosed; two of those were fatal.

As a result, staff at Union Rescue Mission are now trained to use Narcan, a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose.

“If we can get to them quick enough, we can intervene and get medical attention through the Narcan kits,” Nolte said. “In one case, that really was helpful for us.”

But not every shelter in Wichita has access to a steady supply of Narcan.

“I could go to a pharmacy and work out a one-time deal, but that’s not what we’re needing,” said Deann Smith, executive director of United Methodist Open Door.

Smith suspects that several people recently overdosed in or outside of their facility, and at least one was fatal.

According to Safe Streets, a community group focused on preventing drug-related deaths, marginalized groups like the unhoused are the most in need of care.

“What we really need to be looking at are: Do people have access to affordable health care, access to doctors who are culturally competent and who understand, who are not going to come into the situation with stigma and outdated perspectives on how to treat people who use drugs?” Communities Program Director Aonya Barnett said.

“It’s a matter of humanizing the drug epidemic that we’re seeing.”

This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW