The message at Covenant House Alaska’s annual candlelight vigil is always hopeful, but Thursday’s gathering shed light on a disturbing trend – a growing number of drug overdoses at its youth shelter.
More than 100 people turned out to show their support for Covenant House and its mission to keep troubled teens off the streets and steer them towards stability.
It’s never been easy. But one thing has made it harder than ever before – the prevalence of a synthetic opioid drug called fentanyl, which is added to counterfeit pills. Drug experts say a lethal dose is small – only 2 milligrams, enough to sit on the tip of your finger.
Alison Kear, the director of Covenant House, says the young people in their programs have always struggled with suicide and addiction. But in her 27 years of working at Covenant House, she’s never seen anything like it.
“How horrible it must feel to want to escape so badly, that you would take a drug that 50 percent of the people overdose on, from one pill,” she said.
At Covenant House’s main shelter, which has 65 beds, Kear says there’s been an 82 percent increase in overdoses in the last quarter alone. Since July, Kear says Covenant staffers have resuscitated more than 100 young people.
She says staffers now carry Narcan overdose kits in their fanny packs.
“We used to carry one,” Kear said. “What we found – some people take more. They’re carrying as many as three to five kits.”
At the vigil, Kear told the gathering that as she was leaving the shelter that evening, a young person was running into Covenant House’s front door, carrying a person who was overdosing.
“This is real,” said Kear, who went on to say that the girl needed three doses of Narcan and CPR to be revived before she was rushed to the hospital.
Kear says there have been no deaths this year due to drug overdose, but there have been far too many close calls. She told the gathering that these young people have either burned all their bridges with family – or left home to escape abuse. And now, they have nowhere to turn but to the community for help.
“It’s not a matter of if we’re going to have a death due to fentanyl,” Kear said. “It’s a matter of when.”
And for the time being, Covenant House is staying as vigilant as it can to protect their residents.
“Years ago, we thought our job was helping young people weather the storm,” Kear said. “But now, we realize the storm is inside of them.”