Heroin use and the abuse of prescription opioid medication is on the rise nationwide, and evidence of its impact in Chicago’s suburban communities is seeping into public spaces.

A 36-year-old man was found dead last week in the stall of a second-floor bathroom at a Kohl’s department store, 2200 Harlem Ave., in North Riverside. Hypodermic needles and other paraphernalia found at the scene suggest a heroin overdose. The cause of death has not been announced and police are awaiting the results of a toxicology report by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

On April 21, River Forest police were called to Whole Foods Market, 7245 Lake St., after a man had locked himself in the public bathroom and refused to open the door. Police report the man, a 34-year-old Chicago resident, was found in possession of a gram of heroin and other paraphernalia. 

“This drug has a grip on large sections of society,” River Forest Police Chief James O’Shea said in a telephone interview, calling the spread of heroin an “epidemic.”

He said it’s not uncommon for local police to get called out to shops at River Forest Town Center, 7265 Lake St., where Whole Foods is located, according to O’Shea. But that shopping center isn’t alone in its exposure to the heroin epidemic.

“The Lake and Harlem area would be considered a ‘hot spot’ for people using heroin or being found in possession of it or suffering from the symptoms of overdose,” O’Shea said.

Other clues reveal that heroin use along the commercial corridor has become enough of a problem that at least one business has closed its bathroom to the public. Oak Park Township President David Boulanger told Wednesday Journal that a recent trip to CVS Pharmacy, just south of the CTA Green Line from the Whole Foods, revealed that the shop no longer allows patrons to use its bathroom.

In April, Boulanger was told by a store employee that it was closed “because we kept finding people in there shooting up,” he said.

Forest Park Police Chief Tom Aftanas confirmed that heroin use is prevalent along Harlem Avenue, which borders Oak Park, Forest Park and River Forest. He said “just about every place you can stop and park” has been exposed to public heroin use.

Aftanas explained that users frequently come into the area on the Green Line or Metra train after scoring heroin in the city. They use the drugs in more affluent communities because of the reduced likelihood they’ll be robbed.

“They generally want to go someplace where they’re not going to be noticed,” he said. 

That means parked cars, public bathrooms and other out-of-the-way spaces where they hope to go unnoticed. He noted that the Dunkin’ Donuts at 7200 Circle Ave., located in the parking lot of the aforementioned CVS, has had several incidents over the years involving heroin use in its bathroom.

Aftanas noted that several businesses along Harlem now restrict use of their public bathrooms and are calling police sooner when they suspect heroin users have entered their business.

 He said overdoses have spiked slightly in the last six months in Forest Park, in part because of cheap, available heroin and also because of more dangerous chemicals being used with the drug.

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office said it is seeing a rise in deaths from use of the drug fentanyl, an opioid up to 100 times more potent, often used alone or in conjunction with heroin and other drugs.

“Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues [illicit versions of fentanyl] are a huge concern because fentanyl is 20 to 100 times more potent than heroin, posing a much greater risk of overdose,” Dr. Steven Ask, emergency medicine physician and toxicologist at Stroger Hospital, said in a Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office press release in April. “In many cases, one dose of naloxone, the heroin antidote, will revive a person who has overdosed on heroin. But we are seeing people in our emergency department who need as many as four doses as naloxone to be stabilized after ingesting fentanyl, or a heroin/fentanyl combination.”

The Medical Examiner’s Office said fentanyl poses an even greater risk than heroin because of its potency. There have been 106 deaths attributed, at least in part, to fentanyl in Cook County since September, according to the Medical Examiner. That’s compared to 20 such deaths in all of 2014.

O’Shea said the heroin problem is not only one of people shooting up and possibly overdosing, but it also has increased shoplifting and theft in the area. Batteries, liquor, Red Bull energy drink and over-the-counter medication, among others, are frequently shoplifted items to be sold to fencing operations for pennies on the dollar, he said.

“They sell it and use that money to fund their drug habits,” O’Shea said. “The people we arrest or interview on the street, a lot of them will readily admit they have to do something to earn money, and a lot of them are nonviolent individuals, so they will steal and find a place that will purchase their goods.”

O’Shea said they’ve used such information to track down and bust illegal fencing operations in Chicago.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com