The city handed out toolkits to people who attended El Barrio Es Nuestro, a community meeting in Fairhill. The kits included blue light bulbs, containers to dispose of used needles and "no trespassing" signs.

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Updated Jan. 23

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

“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.”

Lehigh and Aramingo Ave., abandoned train tracks Credit: Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

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.

Jennifer Stewart. McPherson Square, Needle Park Credit: Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

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, 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.”

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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...