Los Angeles city leaders say they will tackle a fentanyl addiction crisis that is consuming L.A.’s MacArthur Park, which has become a hub for fentanyl sales and consumption in the midst of the heavily Latino working-class neighborhood of Westlake.
Mom and pop shopkeepers suffer from a spike in shoplifting fueled in part by people seeking money to buy fentanyl. People overdose and die. Residents of Westlake live in one of the most densely populated areas of Los Angeles, but they are losing their access to vital public park space.
A Southern California News Group’s investigative series published in late August found that the fentanyl addiction crisis has severely impacted MacArthur Park and Westlake, prompting Los Angeles officials to describe the situation as “devastating.”
“It reinvigorated my fight and our district’s fight to make sure that we can tackle an area that is now ground zero for overdoses,” said Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, who represents MacArthur Park, after reading the investigation.
“We’re experiencing over four overdoses just in that one neighborhood every single day.”
The SCNG investigation centered on a community where substance use services and homeless services are falling short of the mushrooming need.
“I feel like the lack of light on our neighborhood and a lack of prioritization is felt on the ground and it is incredibly frustrating,” Hernandez said. “Especially because of how many people are dying.”
Mayor Karen Bass said the fentanyl epidemic is a “matter of life and death” that necessitates a rapid response.
“The level of addiction happening in areas of our city and the deaths that it is causing are devastating,” said Bass, in a statement responding to the newspaper’s investigation published on August 28. “We will continue to work closely with partners to bring people inside from the surrounding area and explore ways to improve community safety within MacArthur Park.”
Hernandez seeks to implement several strategies to support those who are homeless, residents and small businesses owners impacted by the fentanyl crisis in MacArthur Park.
Her strategies include convening a working group of stakeholders and service providers, offering police-free alternatives to respond to certain 911 calls, opening a center for harm reduction services, funding a mobile overdose prevention team, launching an overdose prevention campaign in housing developments and providing a new street-cleaning team.
“I have confidence that our council will be in support of our strategies,” said Hernandez. “Where I would like to see more support from is our mayor’s office. I think that she plays an incredibly important role in this.”
One initiative that Bass highlighted is a pilot program to be launched in the coming months that would help connect Angelenos in need of help with residential substance use treatment facilities.
Bass also emphasized the importance of doubling down on existing efforts such as street medicine teams, daily outreach services and supportive housing both in MacArthur Park and across Los Angeles.
“No one should be dying on our streets and all of our neighbors should feel safe and secure walking down the street in their neighborhoods, working in their local businesses and visiting community spaces like parks and libraries,” she said.
At a state level both Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, whose district includes MacArthur Park, and Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, whose district includes the nearby overdose-impacted Skid Row in Downtown L.A., say they are fighting for resources to combat the fentanyl epidemic in MacArthur Park and beyond. State Senator María Elena Durazo, who represents MacArthur Park, declined comment.
“There has been great outreach efforts in the park to provide housing and substance abuse treatment services, but the truth is more needs to be done,” said Santiago, in a statement to the Southern California News Group.
“We must be on the ground connecting with every individual in the park and ensure that local partners have received their allocated state dollars to expand access to fentanyl (test) strips and Narcan,” he added, referring to a nasal spray used to reverse opioid overdoses.
Jones-Sawyer said he knew that MacArthur Park was a hub for fentanyl sales before SCNG’s investigation, but found the information on the daily struggles of people battling addiction “eye-opening.”
Jones-Sawyer has urged legislators in Sacramento to view the fentanyl epidemic through the lens of a public health crisis and not a criminal justice problem. His view is backed by Hernandez who is focused on bringing service-oriented, not punitive, strategies to MacArthur Park.
“I hope that (state legislators) can see that over 40 years of the war on drugs and a trillion dollars later, those policies have put us in the place where we are today where people are dying at incredible numbers,” Hernandez said.
As chair of the state Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, Jones-Sawyer shelved a series of bills this year that would have introduced harsher sentences for fentanyl dealers.
He said such bills would increase jail populations without addressing the underlying problem of addiction, noting that people recently released from jail are 40 times as likely to die from an opioid overdose than the general public.
“We put together law enforcement professionals, judges, DEA officials and others; they’re the ones that told us that they believe that you can imprison the person who’s selling the drugs, but they will be replaced by someone else,” Jones-Sawyer said.
As an alternative approach, Jones-Sawyer introduced the Fighting Fentanyl Bond Act of 2024, which would place a measure on the November 2024 ballot asking California’s voters to approve funding for public health interventions, education and awareness campaigns, drug deterrence efforts, violence reduction, and research on emerging drugs such as xylazine.
Jones-Sawyer also said he would also like to see more mental health and drug abuse counselors working on the ground with people experiencing homelessness and addiction in Skid Row and MacArthur Park.
But when it comes to guiding solutions to the fentanyl crisis in MacArthur Park, there is a gap in local leadership on the community’s MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council. Only one person ran for a seat in the last neighborhood council election, meaning that the council no longer meets its quorum rule and it cannot function.
Alex Schoenner, the sole neighborhood council member, said he is working with the city to revive the organization by rallying people to run for seats in November.
“We’re really trying to encourage the community and anyone who is a stakeholder to get involved,” he said. “Drug addiction, homelessness these are huge problems in this community.”
Hernandez said that the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council is one of several neighborhood councils in the city struggling with community engagement. She said the time commitment is challenging for working folks and noted that there are often accessibility issues for residents who don’t speak English.
Schoenner also pointed to a general sense of hopelessness pervading the MacArthur Park community, which has long been a hotspot for drug use, crime and homelessness.
“You become cynical, you become jaded, you think what can I do?” said Schoenner. “But at the end of the day what we really all need to do is come together.”
Source: Orange County Register