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Four Ways Philly Is Fighting the Opioid Epidemic in Fairhill and Kensington

By Michaela Winberg

Michael DiBerardinis tried to hold back tears at a community meeting on Saturday morning.

DiBerardinis, the managing director of the City of Philadelphia, was one of the first panelists to speak at El Barrio Es Nuestro, a community meeting geared toward combating the opioid epidemic in Fairhill and Kensington. The meeting — held at the Salvation Army on Mascher Street near Allegheny Avenue — was intended to inform and educate attendees about the city’s existing efforts against substance use in the neighborhood.

The gathering came on the heels of the city’s Wednesday announcement that it would sue national pharmaceutical companies for “deceptive marketing” practices, which they argue worsened the opioid crisis in Philadelphia.

As DiBerardinis spoke in front of city officials, nonprofit workers and community residents, a few tears did fall from his eyes.

“I have never been so frustrated, depressed at times, mad at myself,” he said, “for not being able to do what we need to do to keep this neighborhood safe.” He assured the audience, “We’re trying, and we’ll continue to do that with you.”

He also admitted that the city’s outreach hasn’t always been enough.

“We’re going to make mistakes,” DiBerardinis said. “But never, ever think that we’re not going to stay here with you and fight this thing out.”

The remaining panelists, all committed to solving Philadelphia’s worsening opioid crisis, included 7th District Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, DBHIDS Deputy Commissioner Roland Lamb and Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden. Here are a few potential solutions they presented:

Warming centers

When the bomb cyclone storm hit earlier this month — bringing snow, ice, single-digit temps and subzero windchills — the city instituted a new type of homeless shelter. The first “warming center” opened at Cione Recreation Center in Kensington on Dec. 30, 2017. People didn’t need to show any form of identification to enter, and they weren’t required to commit to spending the whole night there.

That last detail is key. When shelters force people to stay the whole night, officials explained, it can deter those with substance use disorder from entering. They often opt to stay in the cold so they can use drugs and avoid going through withdrawal.

“Because of the uniqueness of their affliction, they were not coming into our homeless shelters,” Alicia Taylor, a city communications specialist, told Billy Penn. “They were going to die if we didn’t do something.”

The city partnered with recovery group Angels in Motion to staff the Cione Rec warming center, which has been open on and off over the past three weeks as dictated by the weather. The city also collaborated with Mural Arts to open a second warming center at Porch Light, a community arts space in Kensington.

“We wanted to save lives,” said Joanna Otero-Cruz, the city’s deputy managing director for community services. “We wanted to make sure people had a place to go, could have something warm to drink and could escape the cold, even if it was just for a couple hours.”

Allowed encampments, with trash bags

Inspector Ray Convery, who leads the East Division for Philadelphia Police, is working on a new program to make the bridges in Kensington and Fairhill more safe — both for neighborhood residents and those staying there in encampments.

Convery said he hopes to institute a “safe corridor” on one side of the bridge for residents to walk across without obstruction. Along the other side — for the time being — the people experiencing homelessness will be allowed to stay. Until the city can provide these people with permanent housing, Convery said, he’ll work to provide bridge residents with trash bags to help clean up the area.

Once he cleans up the bridges, he hopes to slowly expand to the entire neighborhood.

“That’s going to make a huge difference for us,” Convery said. “And then we can start working on some of the scattered camps that you see elsewhere. We want to be able to start…a block-by-block program down there.”

“I can’t take the whole neighborhood and fix it at once,” Convery said. “But we can do pieces at a time.”

Recovery housing

Pennsylvania Senate Bill 446, recently signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf, will give the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs the authority to certify recovery houses that receive public funds.

In advance of the official process being implemented, DBHIDS Deputy Commissioner Lamb said, the city will host a Pennsylvania Alliance of Recovery Residences information session. On Jan. 24 at 1 p.m., PARR Executive Director Fred Way will teach the basics of certified recovery housing.

“Based upon the new standards,” Lamb explained, “in order to call yourself a recovery house, you’re going to have to meet certain qualifications.”

The mission of this effort is two-fold. It’s meant to help people with addiction find sober housing, and also to communicate the idea that recovery houses don’t always bring horror stories — they can be good for their neighborhoods and are often effective at helping people recover.

Safe-injection site?

This one is still up in the air.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Philly is “exploring the possibility” of a supervised safe-injection site, which would allow people to use drugs in the building and provide medical care and treatment options. Locales like these have proven effective in limiting overdose deaths in cities like Vancouver.

“The city is very much in the process of exploring whether such a facility is appropriate for Philadelphia,” Farley said. “We hope to have an answer soon.”

Community response

What did residents think of all this? In short: It’s a good start.

Beatrize Thomas, who lives on A Street near Somerset Avenue, said the presentation left her feeling optimistic about the future of her neighborhood. But she knows these problems can’t be solved overnight.

“It’s going to take time,” said Thomas, 67. “This is a crisis, so it’s going to take a little time to clean it up.”

Diana Rodriguez, 42, found out about the meeting from her son, who attends Fairhill PAL in the same Salvation Army location. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have known about the meeting at all — which she called out as a major problem.

“Half of my neighborhood didn’t know about it,” Rodriguez said. “There was a lack of communication there with the neighborhood. I think they should’ve informed all of the neighborhood to try to get them in here.”

Still, Rodriguez was glad she’d attended.

“It was good to have information, because you don’t always know what’s going on and the way things are around here,” she said. “It gave us some hope, but there’s still more work to be done, one step at a time.”

Philly Offers Free Training on Use of Narcan

By Alicia Vitarelli

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — Officials call it nothing short of a lifesaver, and Wednesday city officials offered anyone who lives in Philadelphia free training on how to use Narcan.

Narcan is the brand name of the drug used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Overdoses are skyrocketing and officials want everyone to have the tools and skills to save a life.

The city’s behavioral health department offered education about the epidemic, the drug and access to Narcan. They also gave a hands on demonstration on how to administer Narcan. The goal was simple: combating the crisis one person at a time.

“A lot of people are faced with this crisis in their own households,” said Pamela McClenton of the Department of Behavioral Health. “This is a way for us to destigmatize the opioid substance use disorder and treatment.”

Narcan can be purchased over-the-counter at drug stores in Philadelphia, you do not need a prescription.

Officials said it can reverse a fatal overdose almost immediately, and restore breathing within two to eight minutes.

Kennedy Health in Berlin, Camden County is tackling the opioid epidemic in New Jersey.

Medical experts spent the day discussing the crisis and the efforts to fight it.

U-S Congressman Donald Norcross was the opening speaker and Tony Luke, the cheesesteak franchise founder, shared his emotional story after his son recently died from a heroin overdose.

Fighting the War Against Opioid Addiction with Narcan

PHILADELPHIA, PA (WTXF) – As the country continues to grapple with the opioid epidemic, many view overdose reversal medication as an essential tool to fight back.

Some counselors, like Rick Tull of Philadelphia’s Office of Behavioral Health, believe making these drugs more accessible deserves consideration.

“With all the people who passed, including the three people who passed in Philadelphia last night, I think it’s appropriate to have a moment of silence,” he says.

Wednesday was one in a series of events hosted by the city to get the message out that residents must be prepared to save a life when the moment calls for it. Participants heard Tull present the staggering statistics.

“Every day, 100 people will die from opioid overdoses nationwide, [with] at least three to four in Philadelphia alone,” he said.

But it honestly wasn’t the stats that made the biggest impact, it was the attendees..

Elvis Rosado works in addiction prevention and demonstrated Narcan because he knows firsthand its impact.

“The agency staff has reversed over 200 people. By myself, as of last week, I’m at 37 people,” he told FOX 29’s Bill Anderson.

Onzie Travis is a counselor who shocked attendees with his sincerity when he explained only one person he worked with died from drug use.

“Some people I’ve worked with have overdosed,” he said. “Fortunately, only one of them passed away. The others were revived.”

Health worker Allison Herens administered Narcan following a training session less than 24 hours after purchasing it.

“I purchased Narcan the day before, and when I got to Somerset Station a man on the platform overdosed and I reversed him,” she said.

Whether making Narcan more accessible makes users more likely to continue abusing opioids, the training sessions made a simple point clear. While we debate the merits of these overdose reversal drugs, we should save lives while we do it.

Collaboration Can Lead to Change

By David T. Jones

What’s happening along Gurney Street is something to be celebrated.

In just over two weeks since the clean-up project began along a stretch of land owned by Conrail in the Kensington-Fairhill community, more than 250 tons of waste and debris have been removed and fencing is going up to prevent people from becoming injured on or near the railroad tracks.  In addition, the fencing serves as a barrier to prevent gathering in the area where folks had engaged in dangerous and unhealthy behavior.  In this instance the “C “word, collaboration between City agencies and private partners, has made the difference — the once blighted landscape is no more.

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Mayor Addresses Opioid Crisis in Philadelphia

On Nov. 22, Mayor Jim Kenney announced the formation of a Task Force to combat the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia. The epidemic of abuse, addiction and overdose from opioids is a national crisis that now claims the lives of more than 28,000 Americans each year. Philadelphia is projected to have 840 drug overdose deaths in 2016, an increase from 2013 and nearly three times the number of homicides in the city. Eighty percent of those overdose deaths will involve opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl.

“The opioid epidemic has been taking lives, destroying families and undermining the quality of life of Philadelphians across the city,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “This is a significant social and public health challenge requiring a comprehensive, citywide approach.”

The task force will be co-chaired by two City Commissioners, Arthur C. Evans, Jr., Ph.D., Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services and Dr. Thomas Farley, Department of Public Health. It will be comprised of 16 members with representatives from a broad section of stakeholders who are affected by the epidemic including representatives from all relevant city departments and city council, addiction experts, researchers, physicians, business and community groups, persons with lived experience, state and federal government, and law enforcement.

“Virtually everyone selected to serve on this task force has been immersed in this issue for a long time taking aggressive and strategic action to combat it but our efforts have been too fragmented,” said Arthur C. Evans, Jr., Ph.D., Commissioner of DBHIDS. “Coming together as a single unit will allow us to harness our collective expertise and put us in a stronger position to make an impact in response to an unprecedented epidemic that for multiple years has claimed more lives in Philadelphia than gun violence.”

This summer, commissioners Evans and Farley issued a city wide warning that a dangerous heroin laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl was circulating in Philadelphia. The drug combo killed at least 28 people between March 3 and April 20. Fentanyl, an extremely potent opioid is 100 times stronger than morphine. “We need everyone to help us solve this problem by reducing the number of people who become addicted, getting people who are addicted into treatment, and preventing fatal overdose in users who are not yet in treatment” said Health Commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley.

The Task force will work through five sub-committees that will include additional members:

  1. Comprehensive data collection and sharing
  2. Public education and prevention strategies
  3. Justice system, law enforcement, and first responders
  4. Service access, best practices, and treatment providers
  5. Overdose prevention and harm reduction

The task force will meet semimonthly for three months starting Jan. 11. They are charged with developing a comprehensive and coordinated plan to reduce opioid abuse, dependence and overdose in Philadelphia and draft a report of findings and recommendations for action to the Mayor within 90 days of their first meeting.

Covering the Opiate Epidemic

Amid the national outcry over an epidemic of opiate addictions and overdoses, and loud new debates over access to, coverage for and efficacy of medical and behavioral treatments, many journalists find themselves covering opiates more than ever before — and trying to develop new ways to pitch stories about substance use disorders. To help journalists and news organizations improve their coverage of all aspects of the current opiate crisis — and take more modern approaches to the age-old stories in substance use — WHYY is organizing a free two-day workshop “Covering the Opiate Epidemic.” The workshop is funded by the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation. WHYY has had a dedicated behavioral health reporter since 2008, and has established itself as a leading newsroom in terms of covering mental health.

The workshop will take place Nov. 18 and 19, at WHYY in Philadelphia, and will feature a range of local and national substance use disorder and mental health policy experts, researchers, as well as award-winning journalists who have covered this epidemic in-depth.

The first day of the workshop, Friday, Nov. 18, provides an immersion into the medical, scientific, political and social issues and trends involved in the opiate epidemic. Speakers include: Roland Lamb, Deputy Commissioner, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disability Services; Dr. Leana Wen, Commissioner of Health, Baltimore City; Dr. Carlos Blanco, Director of the Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); Joshua D. Lee MD, MSc, Associate Professor in Medicine and Psychiatry; Kathleen Myers, Ph.D, Treatment Research Institute; and Michael A. Ashburn, MD, MPH, MBA.

For further information, call 215-928-2459 during regular business hours, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or email


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