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Photo by Eric Molina; Licensed under Creative Commons

Philly neighborhood associations are on the front lines of the opioid epidemic

Community-based groups are taking it upon themselves to train residents to use Narcan.

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Benny Mosakowski swore up and down for years that he’d never touch heroin. But when the pills eventually ran out and the dope was cheap, he didn’t think twice. Soon enough, Mosakowski had spiraled and found himself at age 35 with two kids he never saw, a habit he couldn’t kick and a burning desire to die. So he prayed to a god he wasn’t sure existed: “Change me or take me.”

Detox came after that. Then the rehab circuit. Now 41, Mosakowski’s clean, working in Malvern and says his life has become something that while he was in the throes of addiction, he never thought it could be.

But he isn’t content. The opioid epidemic gripping the city of Philadelphia and the rest of the country terrifies him. He says there has to be more we can do.

“I’m sick of losing friends, and I’m sick of seeing kids who don’t have the chance I had,” Mosakowski said, pausing. “Because they’re not surviving long enough.”

The recovering addict was among a panel of experts in addiction, treatment services and law enforcement who spoke to a few dozen Roxborough-Manayunk residents last week inside the sanctuary of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. The “Addiction Town Hall” was organized by Indivisible Roxborough-Manayunk, a politically motivated, neighborhood-based organization.

This chapter of the grassroots advocacy organization isn’t alone in putting together a small, community-based forum on addiction. Neighborhood associations are some of the newest players on the front lines of Philadelphia’s worsening opioid crisis, and several are taking it upon themselves to organize informational events and training sessions for residents. Prevention Point, a Kensington-based nonprofit that promotes health and safety for drug users in the city, has worked with about a dozen civic associations in just the last few months.

“We wanted something local,” said Julie Odell, an organizer with Indivisible Roxborough-Manayunk. “And people are talking about addiction.”

The power of civic orgs

Tonight at Cione Recreation Center on Aramingo Avenue, residents and attendees will learn how to use the drug naloxone (often referred to as Narcan, the most commonly used brand) to potentially save another person from dying of a heroin overdose.

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Olde Richmond Civic Association

The training/question-and-answer event is on the agenda as part of a regular general meeting of the Olde Richmond Civic Association. Dan Martino, secretary of the group, said they’ve fielded questions and concerns from residents about how to deal with the scourge of drug overdoses in the neighborhood, so they reached out to Prevention Point.

“Being a civic organization, a lot of our power comes from engaged community members,” Martino said. “There’s no better way to empower community members than to give them the power in their hands to actually help police and save lives.”

For Martino, the question-and-answer portion is as critical as the training itself. Residents in Roxborough fired off questions to their panelists ranging from “Are people coming into Philly to use drugs?” to “How do you help an addict who refuses to go to treatment?” to “Is there drug treatment in prison?”

Last year in Philadelphia, more than 900 people died of drug overdoses. The city’s on track to see 1,200 deaths this year. That’s more than four times the number of people who were killed last year as a result of homicide, and it doesn’t begin to address the number of “reversals,” or people who were “saved” by Narcan. Police suspect many of those overdoses were a result of injecting fentanyl, an injectable opiate similar to heroin that can be more than 50 times as potent.

Jeremiah Laster, the Philadelphia Fire Department’s deputy commissioner for emergency medical services, said in Roxborough last week that “the bodies are counting up.” In 2016, the department responded to some 13,000 overdoses and administered Narcan more than 4,000 times.

“Most people are coming to terms with the fact that this is happening in our neighborhoods,” Prevention Point executive director Jose Benitez said. “It’s a major, major crisis and people need to get trained.”

So tonight, a Prevention Point employee will show Olde Richmond residents how to use Narcan, the overdose reversal drug that most often comes in the form of a nasal spray. Residents will also learn how to get the drug. In Pennsylvania, under a standing order from the physician general, anyone — yes, you too — can walk into a pharmacy and purchase Narcan.

Elvis Rosado, a community engagement and education coordinator with Prevention Point, told residents in Roxborough last week that at this point, every building should be equipped with a fire extinguisher, smoke detectors and Narcan. Rosado and the rest of Prevention Point’s employees are, in addition to holding Narcan trainings, pushing family members and friends of suspected drug users to tell someone and do something. Before it’s too late.

“If somebody in your household is having a problem with opiates, you need to tell somebody,” Rosado said. “Worried about embarrassment? Unfortunately your neighbors are going to find out when the ambulance shows up to your house.”

‘This is a health emergency’

Elvis Rosado, of Prevention Point, speaks with residents in Roxborough about addiction.

Elvis Rosado, of Prevention Point, speaks with residents in Roxborough about addiction.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Benitez said in addition to the community organizations its already trained to use Narcan in the last several months, there are six or seven more in the queue to be trained. He said any group or individual that wants training can get in touch with Prevention Point, and they’ll make it happen.

He said he’s seen an increase in smaller, community-based organizations getting involved in addressing the opioid crisis, and suspects it’s largely because those groups and people in them have dealt with this issue first-hand. When a panelist at the Roxborough-Manayunk meeting last week asked if anyone in the audience knew a drug user, nearly everyone raised their hand.

“What’s happening is people are now becoming personally affected,” Benitez said. “People are beginning to witness their friends, neighbors, daughters, sons, moms and dads overdosing. When it becomes that personal, people tend to step up and do something about it.”

Martino said he sees the community group as a “hyperlocal extension of the police.” He’s planning a march for August 31 — International Overdose Awareness Day — from the York-Dauphin station of the Market-Frankford Line to the Allegheny stop. There will be speakers, and Martino wants to the effort to raise more awareness in the community that “we’re all victims” and “negative rhetoric” surrounding addiction doesn’t address the problem.

“There’s no amount of shame or blame or anger that will ever make this problem go away,” he said. “This is a health emergency, and we need to treat it like a health emergency.”