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The opioid epidemic in El Paso: how local community works to minimize harm

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On most days, Michael Buchanan can be found hanging out on the sidewalk next door to Punto de Partida, the opioid crisis center on Yandell Street east of Downtown El Paso. The 65-year-old is in recovery from substance use disorder that he has struggled with for 34 years.

In the same spot just a month and a half ago, Buchanan overdosed on heroin that was laced with fentanyl. But his proximity to the crisis center meant that Claudia Delfin, the reentry coordinator at Punto de Partida, was able to immediately give him Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug, and save his life.

“(Punto de Partida) helped me get an apartment, they helped me get off the streets,” Buchanan said. “Right now they’re helping me get a bus pass … so I can go to my doctor’s appointments.”

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Michael Buchanan sits outside El Paso’s Punto de Partida opioid crisis center, where he accesses services and resources that support his recovery from substance use disorder. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

Punto de Partida is part of a local network of organizations that provide resources and support to El Pasoans with opioid addiction. The public health crisis is increasingly being felt locally amid record-setting seizures of deadly narcotics like fentanyl and dramatically increased overdose deaths in El Paso County.

Drug overdose was the number one cause of accidental death in El Paso County in 2020, accounting for nearly half of all accidental deaths listed in the Medical Examiner’s Annual Report. It was the first time in the past five years that drug-related accidental deaths exceeded the number of deaths by “blunt force injuries,” which include automobile accidents.

“(The year) 2020 shattered historical records for overdose (deaths),” said Kasey Claborn, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin and the lead researcher of Project CONNECT, a drug overdose data tracking project. El Paso was one of four Texas counties in the study’s pilot project.

There were 96,779 drug overdose deaths in the United States between March 2020 and March 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Claborn said the year 2021 is trending even worse.

“The last time I looked, we were on track to break 100,000 (overdose deaths nationally) this year, which is completely devastating,” she said.

She anticipates that border communities like El Paso will continue trending upward in overdose deaths as well, because of heightened numbers of drug seizures on the border. She cautioned that she has not yet analyzed the 2021 overdose data for El Paso.

The El Paso County medical examiner did not respond to requests for the number of drug overdose deaths in 2021 thus far.

Delfin said that having a “safe zone” for people with opioid addiction — a place where people can use drugs with quick access to naloxone and other people around them in case of overdose — is important for reducing the risk of fatal overdose and combating stigma around the disease.

“We’re saving 10 lives (more or less) a month within the last six months (because of harm reduction outreach),” said Adan Dominguez, the program manager at Punto de Partida.

Adan Dominguez, program manager of Punto de Partida, said people with lived experience with substance use tend to be more compassionate with others suffering from substance use disorder. He is 26 years clean. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

“Harm reduction” is a term used to describe strategies for minimizing the likelihood of dangerous consequences associated with drug use, such as risk of overdose or the transmission of infectious diseases like Hepatitis C or HIV through sharing needles.

Harm reduction counters the approach of the “war on drugs,” which focused on criminalizing drug use in an effort to curb the practice, according to Gilberto Perez, co-executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance.

“We tie racial justice into harm reduction very strongly, because as we know, the war on drugs is the war on black and brown people,” Perez said.

Black people are almost six times more likely to be incarcerated than white people for drug-related offenses even though drug use rates are similar among both races, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

At Punto de Partida, harm reduction methods include peer recovery coaching, educational outreach like Narcan tutorials and needle hygiene information, and a jail reentry program. The center also functions as a “resource broker,” Dominguez said, and assists people with substance use disorder in finding employment, residential options, educational opportunities and more as part of a “recovery plan.” 

The demand for Punto de Partida’s services is outpacing the size and capacity of the facility, Dominguez said. Although other local groups and organizations offer rehabilitation, clinical support and some educational outreach services — including Aliviane, Project Vida, El Paso Area Narcotics Anonymous, the El Paso Harm Reduction Alliance and the University of Texas at El Paso’s Collegiate Recovery Program — Punto de Partida is unique in its mission to host a 24-hour crisis center focused on harm reduction outreach.

El Paso’s Punto de Partida opioid crisis center uses a harm reduction approach to the opioid crisis. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

But the center hasn’t been able to be open 24 hours lately. It is currently open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., but needs more staff and resources to be able to operate around the clock.

“We need a bigger building, we’re growing,” Dominguez said. He hopes to increase the number of staff and services to include on-site medical professionals and mobile units.

Although the crisis center is funded by two state grants, it does not receive funding from the city or county, support necessary to be sustainable in the long term. City spokesperson Laura Cruz-Acosta said the city does not allocate any funds toward harm reduction programs like those at Punto de Partida. 

Perez, an El Paso native, was formerly the program director of the now-shuttered Project Encuentro, which offered harm reduction outreach and opioid crisis services in El Paso through a five-year grant but closed because of a lack of funding.

“It’s not sustainable. We might have funding for a couple years, and then all of the sudden if you don’t continue to advocate for that funding or that funding runs out, your program can no longer sustain itself,” he said.

The organization that Perez works at now, the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, recently was able to get $1 million approved as part of the city of Austin’s budget, Perez said.

“(Project Encuentro was) victim to the funding shortage, unfortunately, which is extremely common and very problematic,” Claborn said. Her overdose tracking work with Project CONNECT had previously included coordination with the Alliance of Border Collaboratives, the umbrella organization for Project Encuentro.

Claborn said that although some Texas counties are improving when it comes to funding harm reduction outreach, for the majority it’s too politically charged.

Needle-exchange programs are illegal in Texas, aside from within San Antonio, despite efforts by El Paso state Rep. Joe Moody, who introduced legislation in the Texas Legislature’s spring 2021 session that would have decriminalized the anonymous exchange of used syringes. The measure failed to pass.

“When you work with the more conservative parts of the state, harm reduction is typically viewed as kind of immoral,” Claborn said. “So oftentimes the counties and public officials don’t necessarily support harm reduction efforts, which might be controversial from a political standpoint.”

Perez said that Project Encuentro will hopefully be revived in the future through a partnership with groups at UTEP, where there’s a growing emphasis on harm reduction as a key tool for combating the deadly impacts of the opioid epidemic.

Valerie Barela is the program coordinator for the Collegiate Recovery Program at UTEP, which offers support and educational resources to students about recovery from substance use disorder.

Barela led an open virtual workshop on Wednesday morning focused on opioid awareness and overdose prevention. It was part of the organization’s regularly scheduled outreach events to increase awareness and safety on campus when it comes to opioids.  

During the workshop, Barela said that she had been trying to encourage UTEP police officers to begin carrying Narcan kits with them as a harm reduction strategy. She said she hasn’t been successful yet.

Narcan nasal spray (naloxone) is an effective way to reverse an opioid drug overdose. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

The El Paso Police Department did not respond when asked if its vehicles come equipped with Narcan kits, or whether EPPD officers receive training for how to use overdose reversal drugs like Narcan.

At Punto de Partida, staff like Delfin and Dominguez are acutely aware of how overdoses impact the community. They recalled a recent instance when there were seven overdoses in one day at a hotel on Dyer Street.

“These are people who we establish a relationship with, we get to know them … so when we find out that they pass it does affect us,” Dominguez said.

“We provide the harm reduction in the hope that they’ll one day come around and begin a pathway to recovery, but in the meantime our intent is just to keep them alive until that day comes,” he said.

Cover photo: Collages cover the lobby wall of Punto de Partida. They were created as part of the organization’s recovery support program for those with substance use disorder. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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