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More people are overdosing in Denver's public spaces as bystanders increasingly act as first responders

Elise Schmelzer, Seth Klamann, The Denver Post on

Published in News & Features

DENVER — Z Williams was jogging on the edge of Cheesman Park when they noticed a man lying among the trees along East 8th Avenue. It was June 6, one of the first nice days of a rainy summer, and Williams figured the man was resting in the sunshine.

But from a closer vantage, Williams could see that something was wrong. The man’s skin was gray and pale. He wasn’t moving. Syringes lay in the grass next to him.

Williams knew how to respond, unlike many of the grocery store workers, baristas, bartenders and other Denverites who find themselves unwittingly on the front line of the state’s overdose crisis. Even while out for a jog, Williams was carrying naloxone — enough to give the man two doses of the overdose antidote.

“Then I looked at his face and could tell he hadn’t been breathing, and I knew it was a pretty long shot,” said Williams, who uses they/them pronouns.

An ambulance crew pronounced the man dead at the park.

As Denver’s drug crisis escalates and overdose deaths in public spaces rise, Williams is among the increasing number of bystanders who have been thrust into the role of first responder. The number of people who died of overdoses in Denver public spaces more than tripled between 2018 and 2022, data from the city’s Office of the Medical Examiner show. Eighty-seven people overdosed and died in Denver’s public spaces in 2022 — up from 26 such deaths four years earlier.


This year is on pace to be even more deadly. At least 72 people overdosed and died in public during the first six months of 2023. They accounted for more than a quarter of all 265 drug deaths in Denver in that time period.

People have died in bars, in bus stations, in parks. They have taken their final breaths in a city recreation center, a liquor store, a church. In parking lots, rail yards and alleys.

The increase in public deaths is thrusting the overdose crisis further into public view, and into the lives of passersby, as city and state leaders grapple with how to respond. More and more, retail and grocery workers are the ones finding people slumped over or cold. Joggers and commuters administer first aid and call 911.

“You’re walking around and you’re like, ‘Somebody should do something and see if that person is OK,’ ” said Lisa Raville, the executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, which provides clean needles and supplies to drug users; its staff has responded to dozens of overdoses. “And you look around and you’re like, ‘Oh, actually, that’s me.’”


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