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.
DBHIDS Commissioner Jill Bowen, Ph.D., and Tumar Alexander, City of Philadelphia Managing Director
Guest speakers include:
Richard Patterson Jr., Artist, and Filmmaker @whatshisnameson
James Rivers, cast and family member
Brandon Chastang, Sober Messenger, and Motivator @bmcfly_
Pamela McClenton, Sr. Director of DBHIDS Diversity, Equity & Inclusion @DBHIDS
Gabriel Bryant, event moderator and Engaging Males of Color Coordinator @EMOCPhilly
The Crisis in Philadelphia
The Crisis in Philadelphia
Philadelphia is facing the greatest public health crisis in a century. Every neighborhood in the city is being hit hard by an epidemic of opioid use and overdose. Across all racial and ethnic groups, the number of deaths from drug overdose is catastophic.
About the film: How the short documentary film came to be
So, what are opioids?
That’s what Richard Patterson Jr. asked his mentors, El Sawyer and Jon Kaufman, after leaving the Pennsylvania Reentry Coalition at the State Capitol building in Harrisburg.
Rich, who finished a three-year prison sentence in 2013, took part in the SHOOTERS program: a media development program for formerly incarcerated individuals. Working with Sawyer and Kaufman at SHOOTERS introduced him to digital media and fueled an aspiration for filmmaking. Hungry for his first project, Rich explored issues plaguing his own neighborhood. When he learned opioids are found in prescription medications such as Percocet, or “Percs” as he calls them, he knew there was an opportunity for a bigger story. He figured most people he grew up with probably never heard the word opioid, thus the idea for the film was conceptualized.
”It’s confusing to me because the way the news media shows it, all you see is white people living in tents under train stations. At the time, it didn’t seem like a Black issue at all!”
Rich soon learned there was a lack of awareness within his own community around the language of the opioid crisis. If the messaging around the drug isn’t clear to the people in his community, the understanding of getting help isn’t either. From his research, he founds the biggest issue is that counterfeit pills look exactly like prescription “Xanies” (Xanax) and “Percs” but are laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. Fentanyl is like morphine, but the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warns it’s 50 to 100 times more powerful. Nearly 67 percent of opioid overdose deaths in 2019 included fentanyl. Considering that fentanyl is now found in more and more illicit substances, the number of overdoses is likely to increase.
The goal of this documentary film is to start a national conversation about the language of the opioid crisis and to use it as a tool to spread awareness of the epidemic to Black communities. In collaboration with Seven Halsema, a teacher at SHOOTERS and experienced filmmaker from the Netherlands, Rich engaged in community research and drafted a film script. Not long after, they found themselves interviewing people in Rich’s North Philadelphia neighborhood to gauge the knowledge of opioids among the people he grew up with.
”More people can tell you where to get some ‘Percs’ than where they can get into recovery.”
Upon starting their interviews, they quickly discovered that most people had no clue about the relationship between commonly used pills and opioids. If they did, the stigma around addiction kept them from openly talking about it. A rare case was found in James Rivers, who lost his sister to an opioid-related overdose and included her cause of death in her obituary. Rivers is a vocal advocate in the community and talks about his experience in the film. Through personal stories told by people like Rivers, this short documentary film takes a closer look inside black communities and offers clarity and help for individuals and communities dealing with opioid related addiction. As Rich states: ”It can be the difference in getting help or getting left behind. It can be the difference in life or death.”
Richard Patterson Jr. — Multi-talented artist
Richard Patterson Jr. grew up in the streets of North Philadelphia. After being incarcerated and then released in 2013, he forged a new path for himself through video and filmmaking. In 2015, he attended a fledgling program named SHOOTERS, headed by his long-time mentors, El Sawyer and Jon Kaufman. During his time in the program, he learned the craft of filmmaking and created his own work. In 2019, he received a grant from the Doc Society to work on decoding the language of the opioid crisis and the cultural differences and inequalities it reveals. As an artist and aspiring documentary filmmaker, Rich seeks to tell stories about human experiences, rarely heard by those outside his community by starting a conversation about issues barely discussed inside his community.
Seven Halsema — Accomplished filmmaker
Seven Halsema was born and raised in Amsterdam. He studied educational science and successfully graduated from the School of Audio Engineering. He worked for some of the biggest post-production companies in the Netherlands on productions such as ‘The Voice.’’ He made his transition to the United States in 2012 to pursue documentary filmmaking. Much of his work was alongside co-founders El Sawyer and Jon Kaufman focusing on social justice related issues. Their first release was the successfully acclaimed documentary “Pull of Gravity,” which focuses on mass incarceration and recidivism. It received critical acclaim by President Barack Obama during his televised NAACP speech in 2015.
Since that time, Seven produced a variety of projects, throughout the United States and Europe, and mentored previously incarcerated individuals in filmmaking and journalism.
The Bupe Works campaign uses billboards, transit stations, social media, and other high-visibility tactics to drive Philadelphians contemplating treatment into a single form of Medication-Assisted Treatment that’s highly effective and convenient to take every day. It showcases a diversity of faces, voices and stories of relatable Philadelphians who attribute their recovery to this particular medication, provides an immediate and local call to action for people who need help or know someone who does and features both a quick and memorable tagline and website.
In Kensington, everyone can agree on one thing: The neighborhood in Philadelphia’s river wards needs to be cleaned — of the mattresses, the tents, the piles of garbage, the discarded needles along Kensington Avenue and the surrounding blocks, the detritus of an opioid crisis that pushed city officials to declare a disaster there last month.
But even as officials launched a large-scale cleanup along the avenue Thursday, they acknowledged that the crisis in Kensington can’t be fixed by broom-wielding volunteers and city staffers.
“Today’s event won’t solve the litter problem or the discarded needles,” said Brian Abernathy, the city’s first deputy managing director.
But he told reporters that the cleanup — one of a few dozen goals for the neighborhood that the city had promised to accomplish before Nov. 15 as part of the disaster declaration — served a symbolic purpose, too. Officials hope it will show this long-neglected neighborhood that the city is serious about addressing its latest and largest crisis.
The disaster declaration is laying bare tensions over the central dispute in helping Kensington — namely, that not everyone agrees on how to do it. Even as she praised city officials for “not only working hard, but working smart in an intentional way,” Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents much of the community, told reporters that the neighborhood “cannot take any more.”
The city has promised to find a location for a new “navigation center” — a short-term shelter that does not require sobriety and is designed to house people with addiction — within the next two weeks, as it prepares to clear a heroin encampment on Frankford Avenue. There’s already one navigation center in the neighborhood, not far from the Allegheny El station, where the cleanup crews met on Thursday, and another low-barrier shelter near the city’s only needle exchange, also in Kensington.
Abernathy said the navigation center must be convenient to people in addiction, who often balk at leaving the neighborhood where they can most easily find drugs to stave off the intense pain of withdrawal. “We won’t be successful in getting folks off the street without [the center]. That is one of the most important efforts we have, but also one we have the most questions about,” he said. “We’re confident we’re going to find a site for it that is workable for everyone involved.”
Quiñones-Sánchez says the neighborhood has hosted enough services for those in addiction, many of whom are not from the community.
“I will not allow them to put another [navigation center] in this neighborhood,” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “Kensington has been sympathetic. Kensington residents have been patient. Pero no mas.” “But no more.”
As cleaning crews picked up needles in McPherson Square Park, raked trash out of vacant lots and gave abandoned storefronts on the avenue a fresh coat of paint, residents said the cleaning was welcome — and long overdue.
“The cleanup is fine, but this area needs more than cleaning up. You see people on mattresses, sleeping. You see people getting their fixes in the neck. Sweeping and mopping is not going to fix that,” said Iris Hernandez, 44. “It would be nice to walk out of your house with nothing to worry about — no needles, no overdoses.” She has lived near McPherson Square for 15 years, and said she helped reverse two overdoses on her block this summer.
In the park, Elvis Rosado, an outreach worker at the local needle exchange who also lives in the neighborhood and has reversed dozens of overdoses, picked through the grass with a box to collect used syringes. “It’s necessary — I just think too many people have locked themselves in and feel like whatever happens outside is none of their business,” he said. “We’re reminding you your community is still worth something.”
Around the corner from the Somerset El station, where a crew of workers was painting vacant storefronts, Daniel Hinkie and a friend sat with a few other people in active addiction, surrounded by piles of clothing, suitcases, and cardboard mattresses. Both were born and raised in Kensington; the friend, 31, who’s been addicted for four years and on the streets for two, still has family in the neighborhood.
“They’re only doing this because the mayor’s coming out,” said Hinkie. He said he believed the city only started to pay attention to the crisis in his neighborhood when people from outside Kensington started going there. “But the cleanup is a good thing,” he acknowledged. “The neighborhood needed it.”
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.
Today, Monday, July 31, the city and Conrail, will begin clearing out a Kensington site known as “El Campamento,” a camp that leads to a half-mile area along the railroad tracks that have long been a haven for heroin users looking to shoot up and hide from police.
As detailed recently in Time magazine, the area has been a problem for city officials and local residents for years until the city recently formed an agreement with Conrail that would see the area cleared by the end of this month. On Friday, city officials said that as this week’s clean-up gets underway, the city will also provide a temporary social services hub to help those struggling with addiction at the site at least until Wednesday, July 2.
But, what happens after that?
According to David T. Jones, the newly appointed head of the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, Philadelphia has capacity at its shelters for any heroin user who sees the end of El Campamento as the first step towards rehabilitation.
“We have capacity in our system to meet that need. Right now, we have capacity across the board,” he said, saying his office has been working with Conrail to anticipate the needs of those that will be pushed out of that area.
Jones’ department is funded to the tune of about $1 billion a year and, along with addiction services, the department manages the city’s mental health services and disability services, as well. And, that’s important, because, Jones said, it takes a rounded approach to be able to address issues of opioid addiction.
Along with needing to kick a drug addiction, Jones said, those who might have regularly visited El Campamento will likely need, what he called “social determinants,” which would include shelter, nutritional needs and food security and help building healthy relationships. To do this, he said, his department is set to help connect those who come to them for help breaking the cycle of opioid addiction with the many different organizations that work with the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual DisAbility Services.
“We have been really thoughtful and we are really going to try and make all of those connections across life’s domain,” Jones said, for those leaving El Campamento.
Also, he said, a big part of helping rehabilitate someone who is coming out of an addiction to an opioid like heroin is helping them find a support system – something he called ‘families.” And, he noted, that sometimes, “families” don’t mean just a person’s blood-related kin.
“We are trying to connect them to some type of family unit,” said Jones. “We have families that we are born into and we have families that we create. We are talking about families in the broadest sense.”
Finally, when asked if the controversial topic of safe injection sites were an idea that might help Philadelphia combat its opioid crisis, Jones said that his office is now looking at new strategies to make a dent in the problem, and safe injections sites are an idea that they are considering.
“We are looking at all strategies that will help people in their recovery and safe injections sites are one of those strategies that we are looking at,” he said. “We are exploring that as a strategy.”
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:
Comprehensive data collection and sharing
Public education and prevention strategies
Justice system, law enforcement, and first responders
Service access, best practices, and treatment providers
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.
With treatment for opioid addiction in distressingly short supply even as need increases year after year, Philadelphia’s behavioral health agency invited physicians and other medical providers to a half-day teach-in Tuesday titled the Buprenorphine Summit.
The topic turned out to be enticing enough – and the problem big enough – that more than 200 health professionals showed up.
Buprenorphine is one of three types of medication that are known to significantly improve the odds of successful treatment for opioid addiction, and many experts say it is vastly underused. Families often report that doctors who are approved to prescribe it insist on hundreds of dollars in cash and may not make it part of a comprehensive treatment program, including intensive counseling, that is necessary for it to make a lasting difference.
In Philadelphia, there are plenty of treatment slots for methadone maintenance – another treatment medication backed by evidence – “but the availability of buprenorphine through insurance has been limited for people. Our goal is to see that access expand dramatically as another treatment option,” said summit organizer Rose Julius, a deputy chief medical officer for Community Behavioral Health. CBH handles all behavioral health coverage for Medicaid in the city.
Julius said a future summit would cover the third type of medication for opioid addiction, also considered underused, extended-release naltrexone.
Deaths from overdoses of opioids – both prescription painkillers and heroin – have skyrocketed across the country in recent years, and Pennsylvania’s fatality rate in 2014, the most recent available nationally, was far higher than average and trending higher. (New Jersey’s was below average.)
Gov. Wolf has called for a joint session of the legislature to address what he has called “a crisis” of opioid and heroin addiction in the state.
On Tuesday, the Democratic governor joined dozens of elected officials, advocates and others to rally in Harrisburg for tougher laws to combat the problem. He told a crowd of several hundred people that the state has already taken steps to curb abuse and addiction, including providing a database for doctors to check drug histories and identify patients who may be seeking to attain painkillers through multiple doctors.
“This is not about politics, this is about the people of Pennsylvania,” he said.
Wolf is pushing for the legislature to pass a number of bills before its two-year session ends in November, including requiring doctors to check the new database every time they prescribe painkillers and limit to seven days, with some exceptions, the amount of time emergency room doctors can prescribe opioids.
At the Buprenorphine Summit in Philadelphia, meanwhile, presenters discussed complexities that may have prevented some physicians from offering the medication. Unlike methadone, which is rigidly regulated and typically must be dispensed daily at designated clinics, buprenorphine may be prescribed at a physician’s office, for longer periods of time.
But it requires special training (which, attendees learned, may be available free) and a federal waiver that limits the number of patients that each physician is allowed to treat. (The Obama administration recently increased that number in an effort to expand access to treatment.)
Buprenorphine, which is commonly known by one of its brand names, Suboxone, is not a cure; it works by eliminating withdrawal symptoms so the patient, in counseling, can focus on the behavioral training necessary for long-term recovery. Tuesday, presenters discussed the different ways they have incorporated the medication in their treatment programs: some inpatient, others outpatient, with various combinations of groups and frequency of meetings. But all stressed that it could not be expected to work by itself.
They also emphasized the importance of verification – urine testing under observation and counting how many pills the patient had left, among other strategies – to ensure that the buprenorphine was not being diverted and perhaps sold on the street.
The medication prevents withdrawal symptoms because it is a form of opioid. Although it doesn’t have the intensity of heroin, addicts may buy it to temporarily avoid withdrawal symptoms or, in some cases, in an effort to treat their own addiction because they couldn’t find or get into a qualified program.
Julius, the organizer, said in an interview after the summit that her city agency covers treatment with buprenorphine at 12 outpatient locations. Her goal, she said, would be to have that “at least double by this time next year.”
Staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.
In 2015, more people died of opioid-related causes than by homicide in Philadelphia.On Tuesday, more than 100 doctors and medical professionals made their way out to a summit to find out more about treating addiction with the drug buprenorphine.
Buprenorphine is an opioid itself — but it helps opioid users recover from their addiction. Originally intended to be used as a pain medication, it’s been available to treat opiate dependence for more than a decade.
“When you have buprenorphine on your opiate receptors on your brain, other opioids are unable to occupy those receptors. So it’s both a treatment, it’s also protective,” said Dr. Rose Julius, the deputy chief medical officer for Community Behavioral Health in Philadelphia.
She’d like to see more providers in the city offer the drug.
But some in the medical field have been resistant to using the drug because of stigma and a lack of awareness, she said.
“There’s a commonly held perception by many lay people and people outside of the addiction treatment world that addiction treatment does not work,” Julius said. “In fact, when you apply evidence-based treatment, people can and do recover.”
Traditional recovery methods, such as outpatient detox programs followed by drug-free treatment, can be dangerous, experts say. Buprenorphine can help people during a critical time because it curbs cravings, diminishes withdrawal symptoms and decreases the odds of an overdose. But experts caution it shouldn’t be used without accompanying treatment.
Dr. Brendan Youngman is the associate medical director at COMHAR Inc., a mental health facility in Kensington.
He came to the summit because he thinks a program with buprenorphine, also known by the trade name Suboxone, could be a better fit for some patients than methadone treatment.
“A lot of them want to take on jobs, or do other activities, and it kind of creates a barrier to that. Suboxone allows them to take the medication home, take it on a weekly basis,” he explained. At a time when opioid overdose deaths are climbing, Philadelphia officials are hoping to expand buprenorphine’s availability.
This year, officials predict there will be almost 850 overdose deaths in Philadelphia, up from 700 in 2015.