“I just walked into hell,” Dr. Oz said last week as he visited Philadelphia’s heroin encampments in the Badlands of West Kensington.
Mehmet Oz, the heart surgeon turned TV host, doesn’t do a lot of work as a television tour guide. That is usually the province of PBS hosts such as travel writer Rick Steves.
But Tuesday at 1 p.m. on Fox29, Oz will recap his whirlwind journey into the epicenter of the region’s opioid crisis. It may be the first time a national audience has seen the squalor of used syringes and lost lives that for 30 years has festered four miles north of Center City.
In clips released before the show’s airing, the city puts the blame squarely on Conrail, which owns a set of railroad tracks that cuts through neighborhoods.
Thousands of people buy heroin on the streets of West Kensington every day. Hundreds of those then head to areas along the rails to shoot up under the bridges.
“We need to put big barriers here, so people can’t go down and hide to use illegal drugs,” said Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner in a recorded interview with Oz. “That will bring them out in the street which gives a great opportunity to engage them and get them into treatment.”
The city’s managing director, Mike DiBerardinis, also has advocated for impenetrable fencing along the rail corridor to keep the problem at street level.
But many of the heroin addicts say the ragtag community of drug users helps keep them safe from predators. Many say they carry naloxone, the opioid antidote, and have used it to bring back other addicts who would have otherwise have died of an overdose.
Law enforcement agencies also question the wisdom of walling off the railroad right of way.
Oz asked the Drug Enforcement Administration's Philadelphia division director what would happen “if you built two large walls on either side of the tracks.”
“That would only push it somewhere else,” responded special agent Gary Tuggle.
Oz later spoke to a former South Jersey contractor, Steve Johnson, 49, who has been battling a heroin addiction for about five years.
Oz promised to help get the man into detox treatment, into patient rehab and post-rehab housing. Johnson has his own ideas about how the city should address the encampments.
According to DEA spokesman Patrick Trainor, Johnson entered treatment in New Jersey on Saturday.
According to Emory Salley, of Integrity House, Johnson will be transfered to their residential program in Secaucus, N.J. "They will stabilize not only his substance abuse issues, but also his chronic mental health issues as well," she said.
The Dr. Oz episode, "A Festering Epicenter of Heroin That Will Shock You," airs today at 1 p.m. on Fox29.