Monday night’s community forum on the opioid epidemic was a bit of a hike from Kensington, one of the Philly neighborhoods where drug use is most prevalent.
The meeting was held at CORA Services, a Fox Chase community center. It’s about 10 miles from the intersection of Emerald Street and East Lehigh Avenue — that’s 30 minutes driving, about an hour if you take SEPTA.
Still, at that intersection, an estimated 40 people living under the bridge heard the speakers of the night loud and clear. Evan Figueroa-Vargas made sure of it.
To make it happen, Figueroa-Vargas, an advocate who is in long-term recovery, brought a studio’s worth of equipment (courtesy of his wife, Darlene).
Under the bridge, he set up a tripod, a few lights and an iPad, and connected via video chat with Brooke Feldman, another person in long-term recovery who was inside the Northeast Philly forum. Figueroa-Vargas also used an aux cord to connect the iPad to his car stereo, turning his 2017 Acura MDX into a PA system.
With all that in place, the two advocates effectively livestreamed the entire meeting.
The goal: to keep people with addiction informed about the solutions proposed to treat it.
Options debated in the meeting included medication-assisted treatment and various harm reduction measures, like Philly’s proposed comprehensive user engagement site.
“We keep having a lot of conversations,” Figueroa-Vargas said. “As a result of these conversations, policies are being shaped. But those closest to the problem, those most affected, are not part of the conversation.”
Several factors can make public opportunities to comment inaccessible to people with addiction, Figueroa-Vargas said. Regarding Monday night specifically, several residents told him they hadn’t heard about the event, and that it was too far away for them to make it.
Also, Figueroa-Vargas noted, community meetings often last too long for people with addiction to attend — they’ll go into withdrawal if they don’t use for that amount of time.
So he brought the meeting to them.
“It freaking turned out amazing,” he said. “People were walking up and asking, ‘What is that? What are you listening to?’ It started a conversation around harm reduction and what we’re trying to do in the city of Philadelphia.”
The video chat also allowed Kensington residents to ask questions of the forum’s panelists.
One resident questioned why all the policies being discussed were related to opioid use, instead of including addiction to other drugs. Figueroa-Vargas texted the question to Feldman, who wrote it down on a notecard for the Q&A session. David Jones, DBHIDS Commissioner, then read the notecard aloud and responded, she said.
For Feldman, getting a question from Kensington answered felt like a win.
“There wasn’t anybody in the room who openly identified as a person using drugs or actually living in the encampment,” Feldman said. “To have the voice of the people most impacted in the room, it really was a bright spot.”
Figueroa-Vargas said he hasn’t yet decided whether he will live-stream the rest of the series of community forums. Still, he and Feldman insist they’re committed to amplifying the voices of drug users in Kensington.
“At times, it is just impossible for the people most impacted to be at these meetings. That is unacceptable,” Feldman said.
“Until we can get that resolved, we’ll find creative ways to include them in the conversation.”
A previous version of this story indicated the livestream was broadcast to Tulip and Lehigh. That was advocates’ original plan, but the location was changed on the fly.