Dispatches from the Overdose Crisis: Light in the darkness

A new monthly column taking a ground-floor look at the drug overdose crisis that continues to ravage the state and the nation

Jack Shuler
On Christmas Day, volunteers distributed food, clothing and harm reduction supplies in Newark, Ohio.

It’s Christmas Day at the corner of Buena Vista and East Main streets in Newark, Ohio. For about an hour now, volunteers have distributed food, clothing and harm reduction supplies to dozens of people, including 31 doses of the overdose reversal drug naloxone.

The weather changes by the minute as the wind blows clouds that cover and reveal the sun.

I’m talking with Trish Perry, who runs the Newark Homeless Outreach, when a woman wearing a long, puffy coat and pajama pants asks us where she can get some naloxone. She’s been buying it from the pharmacy to hand out in her community and is glad to learn that the Outreach is giving it away. In about a month and a half, she said, she has reversed more than a dozen overdoses.

I have no way of verifying this, but her sense of urgency during this crisis — that is verifiable. An estimated 100,000 people died from drug overdose in the United States from April 2020 to April 2021 — a 28.5 percent increase from the year before. Almost 5,200 people have overdosed in our state during the calendar year 2021. And here in Licking County, at least 37 people overdosed in 2021. (Much of the drug supply has been contaminated by the synthetic opioid fentanyl, so some are labeling the overdose crisis a poisoning crisis, as well.)

More:Hope, struggle and harm reduction in 'This is Ohio'

A month ago, I got an email from an editor concerning a story I’d written. A colleague wanted to check those numbers; they just seemed high. I appreciate the need to fact-check. What’s happening is unbelievable, unacceptable, beyond the pale — choose a descriptor knowing that no matter what hyperbole you muster, the bodies will keep piling up. The strain on communities, on first responders, on people who use drugs and their friends and families, on the grassroots harm reduction community, is palpable. 

And yet, here they are on Christmas Day. It feels like there’s a light shining in the darkness.

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A volunteer named Josh takes a smoke break by a big, old mulberry tree and tells me that being here is a spiritual experience for him. The openness, the lack of barriers to healthcare, the people who always show up to help — it moves me, too.

Trish Perry runs the Newark Homeless Outreach

It’s not just about the people being helped; it’s about the helpers and the connections, the relationships fostered. This place can teach us something about the problem, as well as the solution. At this corner, we can see mutual aid and grassroots organizing working to address a complex problem that governments have failed to resolve. 

In a recent interview about her new book on George Orwell, Rebecca Solnit said, “What actually keeps our society going is all this anticapitalism that … helps the homeless, connects us to each other, is how families and friendships, church groups, social networks work.” She said that these “warm relations” maintain our communal bonds.

On a day when Christians tell a story about the child of poor people living in occupied lands, a child who comes to bring light in the darkness, we have these people, this act of generosity and rebellion — people bringing ordinary kindness to their community through acts of mutual aid.

The overdose crisis will not be solved by mutual aid alone, but through their selflessness and urgency of action, the folks at the Newark Homeless Outreach build warm relations in spite of resistance, in spite of stigma.

The woman in the puffy coat said that people have told her she’s “enabling” drug use by handing out naloxone, but she disagrees. “I had someone help me when I was down and out,” she said. Now it’s her turn to help others.

It starts to rain, and I move inside a building that the Outreach had built this fall. The squat blue building serves as storage for donations and as shelter for the volunteers on days like today.

On Christmas Day, volunteers distributed food, clothing and harm reduction supplies in Newark, Ohio.

Volunteers are organizing donations on racks and shelves, chatting with each other and sipping coffee. I speak to three women at the harm reduction table who tell me it’s a little slower than it has been in recent weeks. And yet, even on Christmas, people are coming for food, clothing and health care. By the time they leave, the group will have distributed 47 doses of Narcan. 

A man on a bicycle rides up, a plastic bag on each end of his handlebars, and asks for some Narcan. A volunteer hands him a small white box. He says, “Merry Christmas,” and rides off into the rain. 

Ohio has one of the highest overdose rates in the United States. In the year ahead, I’ll be writing regularly about this crisis and focusing on recent data, grassroots organizers, pending legislation, the war on drugs, and solutions. I will document the work of those on the frontlines as much as possible: harm reduction activists, people in recovery, pastors and parents, and people who use drugs. Naloxone is available through Harm Reduction Ohio, Central Ohio Harm ReductionFranklin County Health Department, Columbus Public Health and Safepoint. Support services are also available through Never Use Alone, Brave and Safepoint. For help with substance use disorder, contact SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.