On top of Matthew Pershe’s desk sits a jar of nearly 50 used needles.

The jar was given to him in June by Kensington resident Shane Claiborne. Claiborne kickstarted Need a Little Help, an initiative geared toward getting people to pick up needles in his neighborhood — daily reminders of the city’s opioid epidemic. He gave out jars of needles to city officials to persuade them to get involved in helping alleviate the opioid problem in Philadelphia.

For Persche, the legislative aide for Councilman David Oh, Claiborne’s plea struck a chord, and a partnership. This weekend kicks off the first of many organized cleanups under the El.

“It’s really a blight on the neighborhood,” Persche said. “We see needles around, and it sends a bad message to the kids. It really takes away the neighbors’ ownership of their own neighborhood. It makes them feel like they can’t walk around there. One of the challenges is finding practical things you can do about it.”

Persche and Oh put their heads together. In July, they roped in David Brindley, the founder of a trash pickup initiative called Not in Philly, and they came up with something simple: Oh’s office organized a series of trash cleanup events under the El for the month of October.

Persche expects 25 volunteers to turn out for the first cleanup this Saturday.

Here’s the full schedule for the Under the El Cleanup Coalition (10 a.m. to 1p.m.):

  • Oct. 14 between the Allegheny and Somerset stations
  • Oct. 21 between the Somerset and Huntingdon stations
  • Oct. 28 between Huntingdon and York-Dauphin stations
  • Nov. 4 between Tioga and Allegheny stations
Credit: Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

“When people roll into this neighborhood in Philadelphia, they treat it like trash,” Oh said. “What if we could get people to get up and clean, to send a message to people driving by and riding on the El, that people live here, children live here, and they care.”

Persche said he’s been in touch with the Kensington harm reduction nonprofit Prevention Point Philadelphia, and he hopes they’ll send a volunteer on Saturday to help everyone safely pick up and dispose of needles.

Brindley, a Billy Penn Who’s Next honoree, donated brooms, shovels and 10 trash grabbers from his Not in Philly stash.

“With the opioid epidemic, people can’t do everything,” Brindley said. “There’s a lot of things that require very specialized training — counseling, medical intervention — but something that people can do, is they can help us pick up the litter along this route, which will help snowball into other efforts.”

A trash cleanup isn’t the quick fix to opioid addiction, and Oh said he understands that. But at the very least, he wants to restore people’s pride in their neighborhood.

“Even if they see people picking up trash, I think that is a very positive message,” Oh said. “If we could get some recovering folks to join us in picking up needles, trash, condoms all laying around there, I think that’s therapeutic. It’s all about introducing a sense of positivity and community and respect where there was none. This is a way for people in government to provide some effort to clean up the area and see if we can’t make it sustainable.”

[pullquote content=”We see needles around, and it sends a bad message to the kids … one of the challenges is finding practical things you can do about it.” align=”right” credit=”Matthew Pershe, legislative aide to Councilman David Oh” /]

That’s exactly the challenge Persche hopes to overcome: sustainability. Although he and his team have faith in this initiative, they recognize that when the next four weeks are over, there’s no guarantee the neighborhood will stay clean. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee the cleanups will have a measurable impact in helping to alleviate the opioid crisis.

But Persche remains hopeful that the dedicated neighborhood effort, even for a limited amount of time, will help Kensington residents begin to take over the initiative on their own.

“We want to get enough people there to really get attention, and then have those individuals be impacted enough to share that vision,” Persche said. “That’s how we ultimately make this sustainable.”

For Brindley, whose Not In Philly initiative is all about building toward big involvement, this is sort of a launch effort.

“If we can provide the framework, get it kickstarted,” he explained, “then we’ll be able to identify people in the community who can see it continue.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...