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Boulder Police, Service Providers Note Increase in Meth Use Among Homeless

October 13, 2018

Blankets left behind by a homeless individual sit unattended at the Glen Huntington Central Park Bandshell earlier this year.

Boulder police have noticed a concerning trend among the homeless people they interact with most: More are choosing methamphetamine over other substances.

Boulder police officers on the Homeless Outreach Team estimate that 80 percent of the homeless people they interact with now use meth, versus 15 percent five years ago, according to a report presented to the Boulder City Council on Oct. 2.

Meth use traps some of the city’s most vulnerable in a “vicious cycle” that is difficult to break, Boulder police officer Jenny Paddock said in an interview. The drug makes it easier to cope with living outside, she said, but makes it more difficult to find stable housing.

While heroin might get all the headlines, she said, meth is “just as devastating to individuals and users.”

“Best drug ever”

The numbers from Boulder police are based on anecdotal experience and come from the subset of homeless who interact with police, said Paddock, who is one of two officers on the Homeless Outreach Team.

“We try and focus on the people who are the most vulnerable,” she said, which includes “high utilizers,” or those who often get tickets, go to the emergency room or require welfare checks.

Paddock and others attribute the rise in meth use to price. One person told Paddock that “it’s cheap, and it’s the best drug ever.” It can also help those who are homeless stay up at night to avoid camping tickets.

Meth labs are no longer common, but police believe meth is being produced in Mexico and brought across the border. In 2017, more than 54,000 pounds of meth were seized at the Mexican border, according to data from Boulder’s presentation.

For some people, $10 gets them enough — about one-tenth of a gram — to keep them high all day, according to Paddock. Others do shots of a full gram every day.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people who say they never pay for it,” she said, because people share it freely since it is so cheap.

While meth use in Colorado, and around the country, declined in the late 2000s, it started to increase again in 2013, according to data from the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. By 2015, Colorado ranked second in the country for meth-related treatment admissions.

Longmont police Deputy Chief Jeff Satur couldn’t say whether more homeless people in Longmont are using meth, but he said it’s the most abused substance in the city after alcohol.

Public safety data show that meth and amphetamine drug seizures in Longmont increased from six cases in 2010 to 85 in 2017.

Barriers to housing first

In Boulder County, the coordinated entry system that screens homeless people and matches them with services follows a model of “housing first,” and has so far been fairly successful.

But for social workers trying to help those who suffer with an addiction to meth, the system’s emphasis on housing poses a difficult dilemma.

Meth can cause extensive damage to property if it’s smoked or cooked inside a building. If use is discovered, landlords are required to test and clean any affected units, and they typically foot the bill.

Exposure to meth contamination for long periods of time can pose some health risks, including respiratory issues. In Colorado, a space is considered contaminated by meth if results find more than 0.5 micrograms of meth residue per 100 square-centimeters. Once a space surpasses that limit, it must be condemned, evacuated and remediated, a process that can cost thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars .

Depending on the extent of the contamination, units might even need to be stripped down to their studs.

All this means meth users have “extremely high barriers to housing,” according to Elizabeth Robinson, homeless navigator for Boulder Municipal Court. “It’s causing serious dilemmas because we can’t get landlord cooperation.”

In one instance, Robinson said an agency was questioning a man willing to move to Denver for housing to see if he qualified. They asked if he used substances, and he said yes. They asked what substances, and he said meth. They moved along in their questions, Robinson said.

In trying to follow the housing first philosophy, Robinson said she tells her clients to not smoke inside, a request she thinks some people honor and some people don’t.

Effects, relapse and treatment

Paddock has noticed alcoholics now using meth, and Robinson said opioid abusers also are leaning toward meth.

“Meth makes life outdoors more tolerable,” Paddock said. “Yet it makes housing hard.”

Those who use meth have been more resistant to help, according to Paddock, who says “their entire focus is on meth.” Some refuse to get help.

Others who do get help and go to an inpatient program, like the Fort Lyons Supportive Residential Community in Las Animas, often relapse. Paddock said Boulder police have helped send several people to the program only to see them leave within a month.

“I don’t think the people who focus on treatment know of a good way to treat meth,” she said.

Long term use of meth can change the brain’s dopamine system, affecting parts of the brain involved with emotion and memory, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A 2004 study found that, even if someone recovers and stops using meth, prior use could still affect the person’s dopamine cell activity.

The 2014 study found that, of a sample of 350 people who received treatment for substance use disorder for meth, 61 percent relapsed within a year of being discharged and 25 percent relapsed two to five years after being discharged.

What makes meth addiction more difficult to treat than alcoholism or opioid addiction is the lack of medication-assisted therapy. While opioids users can take suboxone or methadone to help with cravings, or alcoholics can take benzodiazepines, nothing is yet approved for meth users.

“There’s not much we can do to make them more comfortable,” said Christine O’Neill, program manager of intensive addiction services for Mental Health Partners. “Meth doesn’t work on only one receptor, and it’s just very difficult to work with.”

O’Neill hopes that some kind of medication-assisted therapy will be developed in the future.

Invisible, for now

At first, Robinson said her clients tell her that meth creates a great high. But, for most, it quickly turns into a state of anxiety and paranoia, and sometimes psychosis.

“It’s not a high that remains pleasurable,” she said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘I wanna stop and I need help,’ and there’s no help for them.”

Robinson said that Colorado doesn’t have enough treatment options for those who need it. In Boulder County, Mental Health Partners has one inpatient treatment bed for those who are indigent, or without income, and a withdrawal management program for detoxing.

Robinson works with Fort Lyons, nearly four hours away in southeast Colorado, for inpatient treatment. But that program, which has 250 beds, also has a waitlist, doesn’t allow sex offenders, and requires people to be either detoxed clean for 30 days if they’ve used meth intravenously, she said.

Mental Health Partners’ withdrawal management program can’t hold people for 30 days, so this is often a huge barrier for meth users, who can suffer from anxiety or depression and other withdrawal symptoms for weeks or longer after they stop using. Sometimes, Robinson and her clients will work with Fort Lyons to get someone in before the full 30 days.

If a client can’t get into Fort Lyons, or doesn’t want to travel that far, there’s hardly any treatment options locally for those with no income or insurance. And, if they can’t stop using, it’s unlikely they will be able to find housing.

“It’s a burgeoning problem,” Robinson said. “Right now, it’s invisible because it’s mostly affecting homeless people, but it’s going to start affecting other people.”

Waiting for a “tidal wave”

At the city council meeting earlier this month, the presentation proposed several ways to address the issue, including placing needle containers in parks, starting a needle exchange and developing meth-resistant housing or a mitigation fund for landlords.

Paddock, and others, think the largest issue is a lack of inpatient treatment.

“I think it’s more than just the city’s problem,” she said. “If we don’t get more treatment, nothing will change.”

Enforcement isn’t the right solution, she said, but rather education to prevent meth use and tools to help users recover. She’d like to see some of the federal opioid grant money “trickle down” to more general substance abuse programs. Paddock also said they need more meth-resistant housing if people can’t get treatment, so they can still get off the street in the housing first model.

Robinson, however, is less optimistic. Service providers are acknowledging the issue, she said, “but I don’t see any resources for it.”

While a landlord expressed interest in developing meth-resistant housing, Robinson said that expressing interest and actually doing something are very different.

“I feel like we’re kinda waiting for this tidal wave to hit, because I feel like most people are unaware,” she said.

Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, mstamour@prairiemountainmedia.com

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