When I first visited McPherson Square Library three months ago, it was hard to see any signs of hope on the wide and rolling lawn that stretches out in the middle of Kensington, at the heart of the city’s opioid crisis.
It was hard to see anything, other than the young people huddled in the grass, shooting heroin, their last, best chance the library staffers who had trained themselves to use Narcan.
Thursday night, the lawn was filled with hope. It was there in the sheer numbers of people who turned out for a march to mourn the dead — over 900 last year — and bring attention to a crisis made catastrophic by stigma and shame. In the hundreds, they carried signs of their loved ones’ faces, holding up their own losses for the city to see.
Eleanor Doherty, marched for her only child, Johnny, who was 25 when he died in August 2015 in his childhood home from an overdose after using heroin laced with fentanyl. She wore his photo around her neck.
“His gorgeous red hair,” she said, looking down at Johnny’s photo.
She noticed Terri McGurk, who held a picture of her son Jimmy, who was 31 when he died from a fentanyl overdose in March on Holme Avenue, across the street from Nazareth Hospital. The boys attended recovery meetings together.
“He was an awesome soul,” Terri said of her son. “He didn’t want to die like that.”
The women hugged under the El, grieving in public as the subway cars rumbled above them. But I took heart in it: All these people who had lost so much were turning their terrible grief into action.
It’s a summer that has been marked by action. Librarians who took matters into their own hands to save lives. Long-term advocates who have used the burgeoning media attention to call out years of neglect and piecemeal response. A city that started listening — that is digging in and now accepts the fact that anything short of a comprehensive plan for the crisis would be a death sentence for Kensington. And to those of you who have written and called over these many months, sharing your own stories, you own pain, doing your part to break the stigma, remember someone gone.
“This must be the high-water mark,” said the march’s organizer, Dan Martino, an advocate for safe injection sites in Philadelphia.
Nine hundred deaths is chaos, he said. Projections of 1,200 for this year are beyond imagination.
For all the progress I’ve seen, for every sign of hope, there is another sign that the crisis is only deepening.
Allegheny Avenue is swelling with people who until this summer slept in a festering heroin camp by the train tracks along Gurney Street, which in August the city finally shuttered. The city has tried to usher them into treatment, but the problem is way beyond that. The priests and nuns at the Mother of Mercy House storefront church, who earlier this summer blessed and fed the young people sleeping on the library lawn and in an abandoned cathedral, now do the same for those crowding the avenue’s doorways and handicapped ramps.
From their storefront they see how we as a city — a country, really — confront this crisis: pushing people from place to place, hoping they’ll accept treatment along the way, yet not providing a safe space — safe injection sites — that evidence shows might actually get those in addiction to accept help.
“There are so many new faces,” Father William Murphy said Thursday, hours before the march, looking out onto Allegheny Avenue.
And for all the dozens of neighbors who have signed up for a Narcan training session scheduled at the library for this Wednesday morning, the bulletin board still bears a missing poster for a young person lost along the avenue, and so many more paper the avenue.
“Money if found,” reads one for a 22-year-old woman.
Thursday night the avenue was quiet, eerily silent, as the marchers proceeded to the library. That was only because the police presence pushed many of the people the marchers were trying to save into the side streets.
John Eisenlohr, who is 26 and from the Roxborough-Manayunk area, said he has been sleeping in a lot off the avenue for months. He kneeled in the street, crying, his belongings bagged in plastic next to him, as the marchers passed. He was crying for his dead friends, he said, crying for himself.
“It makes me happy and sad to see it,” he said of the march and then picked up his bag and joined the procession of nearly 300 people.
And if the question arose of what good would come from holding a march for awareness in a neighborhood where everyone is painfully aware of the crisis, the answer came quickly.
“People need to see that there are Philadelphians who are invested, who care, who are here to help — that their lives aren’t forgotten about and that recovery is possible,” said Brooke Feldman, a mental-health and addiction-recovery advocate who spoke to the crowd Thursday of her mother’s overdose death in Kensington — and of her own recovery in Kensington.
Marching on, she said, simply: “We are right where we need to be tonight.”
McPherson Square was alight with candles Thursday night. A list of the dead was read, hundreds of names, on and on, some with brief tributes:
Alissa Giandonato. She was smart, sensitive, caring, and a gifted musician and artist. Her major in college was psychology.
Joe McPeat. Hilariously funny … put a smile on so many faces.
Lawrence Marano. Desert Storm veteran. Killed by fentanyl. Dad.
On one of my first visits to McPherson Square this summer I saw two library staffers save a dying woman on the grass. It brought the crisis into the starkest, and scariest, light. Now, by coincidence, where the woman fell, there’s a pinwheel garden. Marchers had planted the colorful ornaments in row to represent the dead. Something bright to mark something so horrible.
A heartbreaking kind of hope, but hope nonetheless.