'It hits every community, it hits every family': Families, former addicts honor lives lost on International Overdose Awareness Day

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Community leaders joined recovering addicts and families of those lost due to drug overdose Wednesday for International Drug Overdose Awareness Day.

Since 2012, over 4,000 lives have been lost in Milwaukee County due to drug overdose. In 2021, a record-setting 643 drug overdose deaths were recorded, a number Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson says we're on track to beat for the third straight year.

"We need to focus on targeted neighborhood approaches," Mayor Johnson said. "There's not one neighborhood, there's not one ZIP code, there's not one aldermanic district that has not been affected by overdose deaths here in Milwaukee."

Wednesday, the City of Milwaukee Health Department partnered with Recovery Centers of America, 4th Dimension, Naranon, and Milwaukee County Substance Abuse Prevention to host three pop-up memorial events around the community for those impacted by drug overdose deaths.

"International Overdose Awareness Day was created to create a space for people to heal from drug overdose or the loss of somebody who has actually passed," said Tahira Malik, a recovering addict and the founder and COO of Samad's House, a home for woman recovering from opioid abuse. "We want people to know that there is hope out there. If you want to learn how to live life after addiction, it's possible."

Jason Fritz lost his brother, Terry, to a heroin overdose in 2014. He says he and his family kept his brother's struggles a secret from family and friends due to fear. It's a mistake he wishes he could take back.

"We were fearful of what people would think about us. We were fearful of a lot of things," Fritz said. "After he passed away, we realized we made a really big mistake."

Fritz says it's important to break the stigma surrounding drug abuse and let people know it is okay to talk about the challenges they are facing.

"I've been trying to be an advocate since the day that he died, to let people know that it's okay to talk about," Fritz said. "I think what you're going to find is you're going to have a really strong community of people who support you because this is such a global issue. I love the opportunity to speak about my brother and I'll do it any chance I get. If we help save one life, that means he didn't die in vain."

Milwaukee is a city that sued and won a lawsuit against opioid companies for the cost of drug addiction. Over the next 17 years, the city will receive roughly $14.8-million from the settlement. Alderman Michael Murphy says the first $600,000 payment should be arriving soon.

"Those $600,000, we'll be using, almost in its totality, towards harm reduction strategies that will be working in collaboration with Milwaukee County," Alderman Murphy said. "This issue has no borders, no political boundaries, and we need to work collaboratively together."

Alderman Murphy says there is hope for the future, but admits it will take work, especially with the challenges fentanyl is presenting in the community. Drug dealers have been lacing drugs like oxycodone and ecstasy with the lethal chemical drug, leading to overdose deaths.

"Somebody thinking harmlessly, 'Oh, I'll take this one pill from my buddy. We're at a party, it won't be any problem,'" Alderman Murphy said. "That one pill could kill you."

In addition to the money the city will be receiving, city leaders say Milwaukee's Opioid Response Initiative (MORI) has made a positive impact in the community, helping get roughly 36 people into treatment in just the first two quarters this year. A MORI team is made up of specially-trained firefighters and paramedics and a peer counselor.

"This program allows us to touch that individual again. Very deliberately and intentionally say, 'Yeah, this is a bad situation, but we've got routes for you. We've got options for you,'" explained Fire Chief Aaron Lipski. "The hope I'm offering with the proven results we've done here still probably means nothing, or it might ring hollow, and I want to acknowledge that it might ring hollow with people who have lost loved ones and are sitting here today or watching this on television."

Chief Lipski echoed the message of other advocates and community leaders about the need to break the stigma surrounding drug abuse.

"This is not television. This is not a movie. These are not what is portrayed about drug addicts in the movies, skulking around in the alley, dressed all like some big, horrible character," Chief Lipski said. "This is your grocer. This is your neighbor. This might be your mother, might be your son. Might be your doctor. The kid, skateboarding by."

For the last year, in addition to the MORI program, HOPE kits have been distributed at fire stations throughout the city, no questions asked. The kits include Narcan nasal spray and fentanyl testing strips.

Opioid fact sheets and a list to resources available in the community can be found here.

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