Experts: Lack of drug treatment to blame for surge in homeless dying on streets

Experts: Lack of drug treatment to blame for surge in homeless people dying on the street

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Experts in addiction say a severe shortage of drug treatment beds is directly related to the growing number of people dying on the streets.

This week, the city released a new report that shows drugs and alcohol are the leading causes of death for Oahu’s unsheltered homeless.

Service providers say the shortage is so bad even if a person wants to go to treatment, oftentimes they’re not able to because the number of detox beds on Oahu is so limited.

The problem is even worse on the neighbor islands.

Across Oahu, public parks and sidewalks have turned into drug dens filled with people consumed by their habit ― openly getting high.

“Part of the barrier for those people getting off the street frankly is that access to the basic drug and alcohol treatment protocols that work are very, very, very limited,” said Institute for Human Services Clinical Director Jerry Coffee.

A report released by the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office shows of 374 unsheltered homeless people who died over the past five years, close to half of those deaths are linked to effects of drug use.

“In most cases, certainly if it’s an opioid addiction or an alcohol addiction, a medical detox is what’s required and that’s a hospital stay,” said Coffee.

He says demand for those beds far exceeds what’s available.

And he added sometimes a person’s best chance at a medical detox is if they wind up in the hospital for some kind of unrelated emergency and end up staying several days.

Even after an addict is stabilized, finding a place to work on their sobriety can be a major challenge.

“I can count on three fingers the number of residential treatment programs here on Oahu that you can actually get a client into," Coffee said.

The Governor’s Office says that’s a problem they’re working on. By the first of next year, the state hopes to have 40 short-term stabilization beds available at Wahiawa General Hospital.

In the meantime, six detox beds are in the works at a hygiene center in Iwilei.

The city is also putting up $500,000 to pilot an island-wide psychiatric street medicine team.

“Health care is the responsibility of the state and the feds. However we want to support where ever we can,” said Marc Alexander, executive director for the Mayor’s Office of Housing.

While it’s a good start, Coffee says it’s going to take a lot more resources to counteract what’s happening in Honolulu.

“We need a number of strategies, a number of interventions if we’re really going to address the different types of homeless folks who are out there," he said.

On Wednesday, the City Council approved another $23 million for homeless services. It will be divided equally among all nine districts.

No word yet if any of that money will go towards drug treatment programs.

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