When someone wanders into Little Earth and asks, “Where can I find the boy,” it’s a good bet that they’re not looking for a lost child.
More often than not, they are out to score some heroin, which residents and authorities say is roaring back in the south Minneapolis public housing project.
Through the first week of December, Minneapolis police responded to 32 overdose-related 911 calls in the neighborhoods surrounding Little Earth, which long has been the heart of the city’s American Indian population, twice as many as the 16 emergency calls handled on average in the previous five years, according to police department data.
Some say that figure may be conservative since police don’t respond to every suspected overdose, while others go unreported.
But drug use wasn’t just confined there. Methamphetamine and heroin also have spread to neighborhoods immediately to the south of Little Earth — where police data show that overdose-related emergency calls jumped from six through all of last year to 37 through the first week of December — and to northeast Minneapolis. Citywide, the number of times police were called about a suspected overdose of heroin, meth or prescription pills has more than doubled, from 95 to 235.
Nationwide opioid epidemic
Law enforcement and health officials say the resurgence of heroin arrived as demand for opioids skyrocketed nationwide. Users — many of whom got their starts by raiding family medicine cabinets for prescription painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin or Percocet — are now looking for cheaper and more potent highs, experts say.
One needn’t go far for a fix. Residents of Little Earth say cocaine, marijuana, meth and illegally obtained prescription drugs are readily available at all hours of the day.
“The worst-case scenario has already happened,” says Carrie Day Aspinwall, a Little Earth organizer who has worked to slow the heroin epidemic. After five people overdosed in one day this summer, residents called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis, she said.
The problem hits home for Aspinwall, who says she has watched her nephew’s downward spiral into addiction, his once-healthy body becoming lined with needle marks “like a ... damn sewing machine went through his arm.”
Last summer, officials started passing out kits containing the overdose antidote naloxone, paid for by a federal grant that also funded training for residents on how to use the kits to help a person who is overdosing.
Naloxone, which usually comes in spray form, works by blocking the receptors in the brain that take in the drugs and kick-starting the respiratory system.
Households with the lifesaving kits are adorned with a purple ribbon, but the community’s supply is running low, Aspinwall said.
Fatal overdose rates stable
While heroin use has touched virtually every corner of the country, overdose death rates have increased the most in the Rust Belt and in Appalachian areas in states like South Carolina, where rates shot up 57 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kenneth Solek, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s local field office, said authorities are increasingly seeing turbocharged forms of heroin spiked with synthetic painkillers like fentanyl, which is up to 100 times stronger than other opiates. The trouble, Solek said, is that users often don’t know what they’re getting.
The opioid issue is unique, he said, because the addictions began with the use of legally prescribed drugs. When access runs out, users switch to the illegal and illicit
“As soon as we get a handle on one type of fentanyl, we’re seeing another type,” he said.
The Hennepin County medical examiner reported that 115 people died of an overdose of heroin or other opiates through November, compared with the 110 people who fatally overdosed in all of 2015. In addition, the number of deaths related to meth increased threefold from 2014 to 2016.
Minneapolis firefighters have administered Narcan, a brand of naloxone, on 413 occasions through Dec. 28 — nearly as many times as the previous two years combined — with the exception of a four-week period last month when the syringe-like device that delivers the antidote was briefly recalled. Hennepin County deputies have used the antidote to save lives seven times this year.
Minneapolis City Council Member Alondra Cano, whose South Side ward includes neighborhoods at the forefront of the heroin problem, says that she has been pushing for Minneapolis police to start outfitting their officers with Narcan.
“This wrongful assumption that this issue will continue, and that there’s nothing much we can do about it, and that it’s happening maybe to people that aren’t that important, and that to me is the problem,” she said.
But the police department said again this week that it has no plans for its officers to start carrying Narcan, because they rarely are the first ones to respond to an overdose.
Curbing the craze
The problem has persisted even as authorities have repeatedly gone after Mexican drug cartels bringing the product into the state by way of Chicago, while street gangs hawk it for $50 on Minneapolis street corners and in northern Minnesota, where a gram of heroin can fetch as much as four times more.
So dire is the situation, that state Attorney General Lori Swanson released a sweeping report this fall aimed at curbing the painkiller craze, which recommended requiring doctors to review patients’ drug histories before prescribing opioids. President Obama directed federal agencies and departments to train health care providers in appropriate pain medication, while pledging funds to expand access to treatment and to strengthen prescription drug monitoring.
Police departments, including Minneapolis, have taken a different approach, investigating fatal overdoses as they would any other death of a person caused by another, including assigning homicide detectives to pore over call and texting histories and social media for clues that would lead to suppliers. Minneapolis police also use undercover officers in areas of frequent drug use to gather intelligence and make street buys, while working their way up the supply chain.
In late November, authorities kicked down the door of a Brooklyn Center drug house, seizing large quantities of meth and heroin that were intended for Twin Cities streets, court documents say. The DEA also is investigating a nurse suspected of writing dozens of fake prescriptions for oxycodone and benzodiazepines.
Meanwhile, prosecutors are more aggressively pursuing distributors who sell drugs to overdose victims.
Beverly N. Burrell, who goes by the street name “Bunny,” has been linked to six people who died of overdose, according to court filings charging her in their deaths.
‘Nobody’s fighting for it’
For several years, James Cross has had an uncomfortably close view of the heroin epidemic sweeping through Little Earth.
Cross said little attention is paid to heroin’s re-emergence in the native community.
“When the (Dakota Access pipeline protest) is going on, everybody’s going over there. But when the fight is here at our home, nobody’s fighting for it,” said Cross, who started the group Natives Against Heroin, after his twin brother became addicted.
The problem may be even more widespread than advertised, he said, because some residents don’t call 911 for an overdose, out of fear of inviting the police into their homes or mistrust of the criminal justice system.
Recently, Jessica Monroe, 41, and Denise Feather, 40, walked through the Little Earth complex on their way to pick up cigarettes, a path usually buzzing with drug activity, no matter the hour.
Monroe says she kicked her habit with a steady diet of Suboxone strips and methadone, and by distancing herself from troubled friendships.
“I’m a grandmother now. I’ve got to stay around for my grandbabies, cause I wasn’t there for my daughters,” she said.
When two of her three daughters became hooked on the drug, Monroe “kidnapped” them to get them away from Little Earth. Eventually, both girls got clean, she says.
Then last New Year’s Day, Monroe’s sister, Dawn, fatally overdosed on heroin after first developing an addiction to painkillers for a toothache. She was 44.
It’s not the only person she knows who died after “foiling out,” as it’s called.
Feather and Monroe’s mutual friend, Tia White, nodded off on a park bench last November. Like so many others, she was rushed to a nearby hospital, but doctors were unable to revive her.