The Opioid Crisis in Philadelphia: Recovery, Comprehensive User Engagement Sites and Housing

Brooke Feldman was first introduced to addiction at a young age. Her mother became addicted to drugs and left the family when Feldman was just four years old. Then at the age of 13, Feldman decided to make it a commitment to find her mother and live with her. The young Feldman had it all planned out in her mind.

“I figured if I found my mom and told her I loved her, I needed her and I forgave her then everything would be well and my life would get better,” Feldman said. “So I asked my dad where my mom was because I wanted to know where she lived so I could pretty much demand to live with her. I wasn’t going to even give her a choice really. I thought I could just show up with my little duffle bag.”

When Feldman’s father heard the plan, he had to break the news to his daughter.

“Unfortunately my dad pulled the car over that night and told me my mom had died the year before of an overdose,” Feldman said. “For me that broke me. The fact that the thing that I held on hope for for so long was no longer an option was devastating.”

Though the death of Feldman’s mother occurred more than two decades ago, the number of drug related deaths in Philadelphia are an even bigger problem today. Overdose deaths have steadily increased since 2013 in Philadelphia. From 2013 to 2016 overdose deaths in the city have doubled according to a report from the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities Services.

Feldman’s mother was dead for a year and nobody told her. She said she felt betrayed. Before her next birthday, Feldman’s actions started resembling her mother’s.

At the age of 13, Feldman checked into her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting but continued using drugs and alcohol in Philadelphia for the rest of her teenage life into her early twenties. It wasn’t until Feldman turned 24 that she started to turn things around after a nine month stay at a recovery house in Kensington.

She has not used any drugs since then for the past 13 years. Feldman said she is an example of the addiction recovery system in Philadelphia working but she understands that her story is currently not the norm.

The DHIBS reported an estimated 70,000 heroin users in Philadelphia and in its most recent report, opioid overdoses were three times higher than homicide rates in the city.

Feldman has become an active advocate in trying to help combat the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia due to the current state of opioid addiction along with her past experiences with addiction. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania school of Social Policy and Practice with a degree in social work in the Spring of 2018 and plans to use her education to help those who struggle with addiction.

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Brooke Feldman speaking at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg about harm reduction. (Austin Ampeloquio/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

“I think that in Philadelphia when you have thousands of people who have died specifically due to overdose deaths, then it’s clear that the city is not doing enough,” Feldman said. “There have been efforts to address the overdose crisis but it’s far from efficient. If it were efficient, then we wouldn’t be seeing the numbers rising for the past three years and expect to see them continue rising for 2018.”

Feldman believes the two things that local government has to make a priority are harm reduction practices and increased access to recovery treatment. She said it’s important to give those who use drugs clean, safe and supervised places to go to if they are not ready to commit to recovery. Feldman added that people cannot be forced to enter recovery, they have to be ready and willing to take that step on their own.

This is why practices like comprehensive user engagement sites are being brought up by Feldman and others in the city as a possible option to help decrease the number of overdose deaths in Philadelphia.

“The reality is that the opioid epidemic, in relation to overdose death, is preventable,” Feldman said.”If people had access to safe spaces where they could use safely under medical supervision then we would see the number of opioid overdose deaths decline. Places like comprehensive user engagement sites are for people who are not in that place of wanting treatment and so it at least gives them that safe space to use.”

Without Comprehensive User Engagement Sites, Feldman said people who use drugs will continue to use out in the open. There are currently several open air drug sites in Kensington where homeless people will use drugs under bridges throughout the neighborhood. Fred Way of the Philadelphia Alliance for Recovery Residences said the city has to do something to address the homeless issue related to the opioid epidemic.

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