Searching for Solutions After 14 Overdoses and One Death in a Library

The lobby of the Denver Public Library

The lobby of the Denver Public Library Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

A team in Colorado is leveraging cross-sector collaboration to connect members of the community to services that could save their lives.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of four contributed articles on the Government Entrepreneurial Leadership Accelerator program in Colorado, highlighting four teams’ efforts to find new approaches to vexing public policy issues. You can learn more about the program from Route Fifty’s original article on the topic,In Government, ‘Failure Is Just an Opportunity to Learn

DENVER – At the heart of Denver’s Civic Center District, the Denver Central Library is an epicenter for knowledge, culture, and community connection. This iconic institution located in Downtown Denver is also undergoing symptoms of a nationwide public health crisis: the opioid epidemic.

This year, the library has experienced 14 overdoses and one death because of opioid-related misuse. Unfortunately, those numbers are projected to increase if action is not taken to address the opioid-use disorder shown to have concentrated in this location. In this current state, the library has increased its efforts by administering Narcan, hiring additional security, increasing police presence, and utilizing two full-time social workers and three part-time peer navigators to work directly with individuals experiencing life challenges.

Fellows of the Governmental Entrepreneurial Leadership Accelerator program, comprised of personnel from the City and County of Denver, State of Colorado, University of Colorado Law through Silicon Flatirons, were given the dynamic mission of how to eliminate opioid-related overdoses and deaths in the Denver Central Library and surrounding public facilities. Data trends analyzed demonstrated heroin-related substance abuse and associated crimes were concentrating in and around the Central Library and Civic Center District.

In the several weeks provided, the GELA Opioid team diligently worked toward gathering information through research of best practice models, face-to-face meetings with local and state government agencies, as well as community-based organizations on the front-lines working to solve this difficult issue. Through innovative thinking, our team found the pulse of the problem and quickly initiated an opportunity to provide life-saving efforts to a population in need of support.

During this journey, our team learned the important lesson of communication and collaboration, through a culturally responsible, informed, and sustainable framework. There are so many individuals and agencies in Denver that are dedicated to addressing this issue. Our team identified groups that worked in silos, and our approach was to develop a collective impact, by creating a holistic, wraparound initiative to have the greatest influence in a centralized location— the Denver Central Library. Ultimately, our goal was to not duplicate, but rather complement, the current efforts throughout the city. We took this issue very seriously, and our time together forged strong personal-professional relationships that will have a lasting impact.

Through a consolidated multi-disciplinary approach, the GELA Opioid team developed a two-part plan to improve services to the Denver Central Library, people experiencing life challenges, and the City of Denver. The first part of that approach is to provide enhanced safety services through a Library Resource Officer, in conjunction with reinforced library policy and procedure to improve security measures that respect the library code of ethics. And, second, the group plans to form a multi-disciplinary outreach team designed to improve wellness for those experiencing life challenges, focused on opioid-related issues.

Denver’s Wellness Team brings together a substance use resource coordinator, an opioid specialist, a mental health navigator, a care navigator, and peer recovery coaches to help the community in and around Denver Central Library navigate assistance and services.

The GELA Opioid team found that personnel in the City of Denver were already working to improve the wellbeing of these community members. Having connected with numerous individuals, agencies, and organizations on both state and city levels, it was determined that these existing efforts, if better coordinated, have the potential to save even more lives.

We are not asking for new funds. We recommend a strategic reallocation of current resources and personnel to develop a 12-month pilot to activate Denver’s Wellness Team, a specialized unit that can mobilize efforts if and when the population moves.

Our approach is modeled after strategies taken in cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, who have some of the most successful programs in the nation focused on substance use disorder in the homeless population. Our two-part solution will assess, direct and connect individuals experiencing life challenges to the appropriate services.

One member of this community, , Thomas, a homeless young man who uses library resources to connect with people in his life, exemplifies the type of impact the GELA program could have. Thomas’ problems with opioid-use disorder started when he began taking a few pills a day from his grandmother’s medicine cabinet. . He could be any one of us, our friends or our family members.  

Thomas does not wish to be bound by his addiction, he is intelligent and full of potential, and when he and others like him, are ready for our help, the Denver Wellness Team is prepared to step up to get them the assistance they need.

PREVIOUSLY on Route Fifty:

Captain Afsoon Ansari is commander of the Strategic Analysis & Business Research Division for the Colorado State Patrol. Aaron Green is Program Administrator for the Child Welfare Division the City and County of Denver Department of Human Services.

NEXT STORY: New CDC Data Show the Role of Fentanyl and Its Analogs Play in Opioid Death Toll