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Two Deaths at County's Homeless Lots Were Drug Overdoses, Officials Say

Homeless people live in tents along Madison StreetEXPAND
Homeless people live in tents along Madison Street
Steven Hsieh
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Two of the three deaths that occurred at a Maricopa County homeless encampment earlier this year were drug-related, according to county officials.

The string of deaths occurred at asphalt lots near downtown Phoenix that the county had designated for homeless camping during the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics have argued that the unshaded lots created inhumane living conditions for people camping there in the thick of summer. No cause of death was available at the time.

County records now show that two of the three deaths that occurred at the encampment between mid-May and early June were attributed to drug overdoses by the Maricopa County Medical Examiner. Fields Moseley, spokesperson for the county, provided the names and checked them in the examiner's online database.

One individual, Yonnas Araya reportedly died on May 11 of "acute polydrug toxicity" from substances including fentanyl, olanzapine (a drug used to treat schizophrenia symptoms), and methamphetamine. The other, Derrick McDonald, died on May 24 of the "combined toxic effects" of fentanyl, methamphetamine, and alprazolam, a medication designed to treat anxiety and panic disorders.

Moseley said the third death, which occurred on June 5, is still under review.

Back in June, some homeless advocates claimed that a fourth death occurred at the lots, but county officials stated they were only aware of three deaths.

To Ash Uss, advocacy and partnerships coordinator at Andre House, a local homeless services provider, drug-related deaths are reflective of a variety of issues, like the brutal nature of life on the streets and a lack of services for people suffering from drug addiction and mental illness — due in part to the pandemic largely eliminating in-person services. Andre House, for instance, used to host weekly meetings for people struggling with drug addiction. But it shut down the program after the pandemic hit.

"It’s not crazy or dramatic to wonder if those individuals were not outside and [were] in a traditional shelter program that had resources and case management, they would have had better resources to help them navigate their substance abuse," Uss said. "The pandemic has significantly made it more difficult to access those sorts of services, because people used to go to community centers and churches."

Besides, being homeless is hard enough. And it's made worse when people are forced to camp outside without shade during ferocious Phoenix summer heat.

"None of us could possibly understand what it would mean to go home to a parking lot in 110 degrees," Uss said. "Could you possibly blame people for using substances to self-medicate in these conditions?"

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