At first, the librarians at McPherson Square called it the “Heroin Meeting.”
That was three months ago, and people were overdosing on the library lawn, or in the bathroom near the reading room, while children played nearby. Five miles away, City Hall officials were discussing big-picture solutions to combating the opioid epidemic that’s ravaging the city.
But the staff of the 100-year-old Kensington library had to figure out what to do day to day. They couldn’t wait on talk anymore.
It was in those basement meetings that the librarians at McPherson took it upon themselves to learn how to administer the life-saving overdose reversal drug, Narcan – and they are saving lives with it. On Sunday, I wrote about how they helped save a dying woman in front of me -- a glimpse into the desperation of the heroin crisis.
Readers responded. Tens of thousands shared the story, marveling at the heroism of the librarians. Some are sending donations for the library that serves the neighborhood at the epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis. The Free Library of Philadelphia is looking into expanding the life-saving training the McPherson librarians organized on their own.
Tuesday, when I dropped by again, it was back to business at the library. The “Heroin Meeting” that started small is now the McPherson Community Action Group. That afternoon, the group filled the basement to take part in a citywide engagement forum known as On the Table Philly – sponsored in part by Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of the Inquirer.
“Our main focus is, guess what, the opioid crisis,” said Marion Parkinson, who supervises McPherson.
That’s been the conversation for so long at McPherson, even when nobody was listening.
It’s a conversation that must balance the needs of a growing number of addicted young people now making their home on the library lawn and the people who have made their homes in the neighborhood for years – who have dealt with poverty and drugs long before the opioid crisis. With help and time, the kids on the lawn might be able to find their way back home, God willing. For the kids in the neighborhood, this remains their home.
“There is no good place to raise kids here,” Colleen Pierson told me during a visit to the library last week with her daughters, Alexandra, 4, and Sabrina, 5. “If you’re stuck in it, you just live with it.”
It’s a tricky conversation, and it dominated Tuesday’s meeting. Nearly everyone I talked with at the four tables agreed it was time to start exploring safe injection sites for the neighborhood – if only to protect the kids.
“It takes away the chance of vicarious trauma,” said Kate Perch, a housing coordinator at Prevention Point Philadelphia, the needle-exchange program.
They talked about what feels surreal, how the kids who grew up playing on the dilapidated McPherson playground finally got brand-new equipment and a polished-up park a few years ago. Now, as teenagers, they chase out of the park out-of-towners who come for a fix. And in turn, the cops chase the teens.
They talked about the desperate need for resources for the people on the lawn and the kids inside – money they need even more now. And of the startling shortage of city detox beds and treatment slots.
The librarians do what they can.
“Librarians are there to respond to community needs,” said Chera Kowalski, whom I watched help save a woman who overdosed Thursday. “This just happens to be what our community needs. If we weren’t meeting those needs, we wouldn’t be doing our job.”
For so long, McPherson couldn’t get anyone to pay attention.
So the librarians took action for themselves, from the tables in the basement.
Along with the Narcan training, the McPherson librarians – and other neighborhood stakeholders like Impact and Angels in Motion – worked with Prevention Point Philadelphia on plans for needle-disposal boxes in the park. And for a full-time outreach worker to be stationed at the library.
What strikes me is that the librarians didn’t have to do any of this. They could have just closed their doors or called the cops every time someone overdosed. McPherson Square might be rock bottom for the young addicted people in the park. But they are met there with compassion instead of contempt.
And the Heroin Meetings are helping the librarians, too – helping lift the hopelessness a little.
“We come out of there and it’s not just talk,” Parkinson said. “We’re not in this alone. We’re all working toward the same thing.”
They can’t solve a citywide crisis. But now, they can – and do – save lives.