Where Epidemic Hits Hardest, Natives Against Heroin Aims to Curb Overdoses

November 12, 2017 11:12 PM

An average of two people will die from drug overdoses on any given night in Minnesota, according to the office of the state health commissioner. 

In addition, state reports indicate overdoses are up almost 10 percent in the past year. State health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said more people overdose now than die from traffic accidents.  

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Advocates at Minneapolis' Little Earth of United Tribes, the most concentrated urban American Indian population in the United States, said their community is hardest hit by the heroin epidemic. And statistics show the Native American community is the most vulnerable population of any ethnic group to be affected by opioid and heroin abuse. 

RELATED: Minnesota Sees More Drug Overdose Deaths, New Resource Launched to Fight 'Epidemic'

The city of Minneapolis recently provided the group Natives Against Heroin a grant to try to make a difference. The advocates believe it's going to take addicts to save addicts.

"We lived it. We know the struggle. We can feel the pain -- as addicts we burn bridges," said James Cross, a former drug dealer. Cross served prison time, got out and started Natives Against Heroin. He and other volunteers -- former gang member Lance La Mont, single mother Margarita Ortega and former heroin addict Teresa Nord -- hit the drug-infested streets once a week to reach the addicted.

"(Heroin is) destroying our community, it's wiping us out, the genocide is here," Cross said. "Addicts ain't coming to us, we have to go to them. We have to hold their hands, lift our people up." 

A KSTP crew accompanied the group as they took their mission of mercy to East 26th Street and Bloomington Avenue. Nord knows these streets well. 

"I was beyond addicted to heroin," she said. Nord's heroin abuse journey took her from honor society president in college to prison. She said an injury got her hooked on painkillers and, ultimately, heroin. It's the same path 60 percent of addicts travel, according to state health department figures. 

RELATED: Synthetic Marijuana Overdoses Spike in Minneapolis, West Metro

"The court solution was to send me to prison and the numbers of addicts in prison are staggering," she said. Nord is clean now, but she has paid a high price. 

"Losing the custody of your child and having her look at you and say, 'But mommy, why? Why?' and not being able to give that answer – that's worse," she said as tears rolled down her face. 

Nord said her story is the story of most addicts caught in the dark, deadly, lonely drug world. Sometimes it's hard for the advocates to venture into that drug world because it means they might lose somebody they've tried to help. It happened again last week. 

"It was an overdose that lead her to the hospital, and her arms were infected so bad that she had an infection, and she died today," Cross said. 

RELATED: Report Reveals Underground US Haven for Heroin, Drug Users

But La Mont said the group can't give up.  

"You try again, you try to help someone else," he said.

The addicted live, die and fall through the cracks on the streets, but Ortega said the advocates have saved 60 lives because of the grant. She says they've reached thousands of addicts. The KSTP crew saw them give Narcan, which can reverse a narcotic overdose, and clean needles to two addicts. The grant paid for those supplies. 

The advocates are also going after drug dealers. They said they shut down an abandoned house near 26th and Bloomimgton, but in a recent visit, a neighbor told them people were still overdosing there.  

The group found bloody needles on the porch, the first of 13 heroin-laced needles La Mont found that day in a one-block area. He picked them up and put them in a bottle with a cap. Ortega said it was necessary to cap the needles so trash haulers would not be infected while they sorted garbage. 

Cross said children walk the same streets drug dealers and addicts do. That's why he said the group does "shutdowns," where advocates stand and protest in front of drug houses or apartment buildings until a landlord agrees to act. 

On this day, the advocates found a woman sitting at a bus stop. She asked for clean needles. 

Cross told her, "I'm no better than you, I'm just making better choices. We love ya. When you are ready -- it could be tomorrow -- I'm here, I'll come pick you up." 
 

Credits

Farrah Fazal

Copyright 2017 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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