Firsthand stories from Philly drug users are showing up on Twitter

@Kensington4CUES tweets thoughts from the streets of Philadelphia.

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Photo: Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn illustration
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Clarification appended

On Jan. 29 at 9:50 a.m., six days after Philly announced plans to support a comprehensive user engagement site, quotes from local drug users began to show up on Twitter.

They came from @Kensington4CUES and @PHLUsers4CUES, two social media pages created specifically to add the voice of Philadelphia users to the conversation. Both accounts advocate for the proposed site, which would offer a safe space to use drugs and access to recovery resources in an effort to cut down on overdose deaths.

In addition to sharing words from people on the street, the handles tweet out a variety of info: relevant events and community meetings, tips on staying safe while using street drugs and direct quotes from drug users living in Philly.

So far, the two accounts only have around 150 followers, but are spreading an important perspective, advocates say.

“Like it or not, they’re part of the community,” said Evan Figueroa-Vargas, a program manager at Mental Health Partnerships who helped think of the idea for the account.

“Even if they’re sleeping under the bridge…their voice needs to be heard. Social media provides that platform to share that perspective.”

The people who run the account simply approach people who use drugs to gather their stories. Then, with permission, they publish direct quotes online (often anonymously), said Sterling Johnson of Mental Health Partnerships, who said he supports the account.

Drug users are the population that would be most impacted by the possible CUES, Johnson said, yet they’re a population typically excluded from the conversation.

“These people often are disrespected daily in every institution,” he explained, “because of the stigma that exists around people with substance use disorders and people with mental health conditions.”

For example, active drug users might not have the resources to attend the city’s community listening sessions on the opioid epidemic, Figueroa-Vargas noted, but that doesn’t mean their opinions shouldn’t be heard. He feels these Twitter accounts are a good partial solution because they meet users where they are. People who share their thoughts don’t have to worry about possible punishment or repercussions for speaking their mind.

“People will wonder, what do these people want?” Johnson said. “We want to provide that answer.”