IN A BEAT-UP maroon Toyota Corolla, Carol Rostucher drives slowly up Kensington Avenue, the street of tortured souls lost in heroin's handgrip.
She scans the young faces, the ones with the faraway eyes of self-disgust. One of them might be her son, Drew, a handsome 25-year-old. He was her first-born, once an athletic, artistic "social butterfly." She knows he is out here.
"As long as he's breathing, there is hope," she says.
Garbage bags filled with blankets, hats, gloves and feet warmers cover the back seat. The night before, in her Rhawnhurst home, she'd stuffed pretzels, peanut butter crackers, granola bars, trail mix and candy tightly into Ziplocs.
On a recent frigid Sunday afternoon, Rostucher doesn't know if she'll see Drew, or worse, if she can help him save himself.
But she, along with other moms and dads from various corners of Philadelphia and the suburbs, wants to help the dozens on the street, mostly heroin sick, teetering on the thin, fragile line between life and death.
"They all could be my son," says Rostucher, 51, sweeping the bright blond hair from her face. "We are losing way too many of our kids to this disease. It's everywhere and it does not discriminate."
In recent years, heroin has become cheap - $10 a bag - and more potent. Also, the uptick in drugs like OxyContin and Percocet has led some users to heroin, said Roland Lamb, director of the Office of Addiction Services for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.
In recent years, the number of people who died in Philadelphia of drug and/or alcohol intoxication has remained steady. In 2013, it was 467. They had on average more than seven drugs in their system. Heroin was the most common, detected in almost 55 percent of all overdose deaths, Lamb said.
The total for 2014 hasn't been fully compiled.
'Live and let die'
Rostucher pulls over near the bottom of McPherson Square, known as "Needle Park" where Kensington Avenue, F and Indiana streets meet.
Another mom, Kathy Given, 50, of Holmesburg, greets her.
Together, Rostucher and Given, lips quivering, trudge up the steps toward the domed, classically designed Carnegie-style McPherson Square Branch Library.
There, on a worn wooden bench, they find a lone young man nodding off, his sleeve rolled up, an empty syringe in his limp hand.
Even through almost-closed, slit-like eyes, the man, bundled in two sweatshirts and a knit hat, could see the women approach. His head jerks upright.
Barely able to move in his heroin haze, he staggers to his feet and takes two steps in a feeble attempt to run.
"It's OK," Rostucher yells. "We're not cops. We're here to help you."
Ed, a 20-year-old Northeast Philadelphia man with a baby face, slumps down, tucking the needle inside the pocket of his baggy blue jeans. He pulls his sleeve down. "Sorry if you saw me do that," he says.
He shivers. Over his left eye is a fresh jagged scar. Several scabs dot his pale face. His lips are red, in places raw, probably from dehydration and being out in the cold.
On his right inner wrist, the tattooed words: "Live and." On his left: "Let die."
"A Beatles song, you know," he says, with a half smile.
Rostucher sits down next to him. She hands him a Pop Tart, toothpaste and disinfectant wipes. Given gives him a bag filled with blankets, gloves, socks, feet warmers and bottled water.
"Thank you so much," Ed says repeatedly. He tears hungrily into the Pop Tart.
Rostucher hasn't seen Ed before. But his eyes and gentleness remind her of Drew.
Sometimes she runs into the same people. She knows their first names; some remember hers. She comes here at least once a week when she's not working as an administrative assistant for a law firm. Other than cold-weather supplies and food, she makes sure to hand out a piece of paper, listing treatment facilities and phone numbers.
And she listens.
"I was clean for 6 1/2 months," Ed tells her.
He's been back on heroin the last five days. "I messed up," he says, hanging his head.
"You had a slip. Everyone makes mistakes," Rostucher tells him, patting his knee.
"It's not a mistake if you learn from it, right?" Ed says, unable to hold his eyes open.
He holds a cigarette to his shaking lips and pulls out a lighter.
Rostucher and Given cup their hands near his mouth to protect the flame from a blustery wind and the afternoon's first snow flakes.
"I don't want to stay out here," Ed tells them.
Rostucher urges him to go into treatment.
"I want to go watch the Super Bowl with my Dad and little brother," Ed says. "My little brother and I are so close. He looks up to me."
He pats his pocket, explaining he has money for one or two more bags of dope.
"Then I'll go to Friends Hospital," he tells them.
Together, they walk down the steps to the whir of the Kensington Avenue El.
Rostucher gives Ed a card with her cell number.
"When you go into treatment, will you call me?" she asks.
"Yes. Yes. I will. Around 11," he says.
"Bye, Ed. Be safe. And call me," she says.
Ed disappears down Kensington Avenue, carrying the trash bags of food and blankets.
He 'hates needles'
Rostucher and Given have sons the same age. The young men know one another. But they are in different stages of the battle.
A single mother of two sons, Rostucher says she sleeps only out of pure exhaustion.
"My baby's out here on the streets where he doesn't belong," she says.
She marvels that Drew "hates needles," and doesn't want to ever get a shot or have his blood drawn, yet injects heroin every day.
Her youngest, Dylan, 16, has stayed home from school vomiting, terrified he'll lose his brother.
"When you have a child out there, they're always on your mind. It never leaves you. I can laugh and joke with Dylan. I go to watch him at crew. But it's always there."
Drew has used heroin for five years and smokes crack to enhance the high, she said.
"The drugs take his brain," she says.
When he's not using, he's kind and generous.
When he's using, he's always thinking of the next high. He shoplifts and panhandles, but doesn't sell drugs because "he'd use them all," she explains.
Sometimes Drew comes home and sneaks into the garage for a dry place to sleep.
"I leave trash cans strategically set up to know when he's been there. I just have to know," she says.
She feels better when he comes inside and Rostucher cooks his favorite meal - ham, macaroni and cheese and green beans. For Christmas, she gave him pajamas, pants, hoodies, socks and cologne.
"Nothing he could sell," she explains.
He's been in treatment more times than she can count.
"He's never made it past 90 days," she says. "I don't get my hopes up when he says he's going for treatment. I don't expect anything. I encourage everything. When Drew says he can do it, it doesn't mean he can do it an hour from now."
Last year, she became the Pennsylvania director of United We C.A.N. (Change Addiction Now). She holds monthly meetings for people who have relatives battling drug addition.
But mostly, she, along with other parents, hit the streets of Kensington.
Kathy Given and her husband, Bob, used to come here looking for their son, Bobby, now 25.
Bobby went through treatment seven or eight times. The last time, the Givens sold their truck and put the balance on a credit card.
Bobby is now a baker and in recovery.
"I got tired of the lifestyle," he tells a Daily News reporter. "I got sick and tired of being sick and tired."
"If that didn't happen, I'd be visiting his gravesite," his mom says.
A number of weeks ago, Kathy Given took Bobby to Kensington where together they gave hot chocolate and cookie bags to those struggling with addiction.
On the way home, Bobby started to cry. "That was me," he told his mom. "Thank you for never giving up on me."
A break from crack
On Super Bowl Sunday, Rostucher and Kathy and Bob Given make Kensington and Allegheny their first stop.
They meet Michael, a 40-year-old diabetic, who's addicted to heroin and hasn't had his insulin.
"You need to go to Kensington Hospital and get your medicine," Rostucher tells him tenderly.
"I know. I know," Michael says.
"Seriously," she says. "It's your health."
"Believe me. I hate being out here," he says, starting to cry.
"You know you want help, but we can't do it for you," Rostucher says.
The next man they encounter, Rich, 24, from Delaware County, says he "got my life back" for about a year, but relapsed. He injects 10 bags of heroin a day.
He guzzles a bottle of water that Given gives him as if he hasn't had anything to drink in days. He couldn't remember the last time he ate.
Everyone they meet thanks them.
"They want someone to talk to them like a person. People walk by them and don't even look at them. They need eye contact," Rostucher says.
At their next stop, Needle Park, Brittany, a pretty 21-year-old with blue-gray eyes and a long brown wig with bangs, asks Rostucher and Given if they have a pretzel. Given quickly finds one.
Then, starting to tear up, Brittany confides in Rostucher. She'd been sober five months, but started to use heroin again about a month ago.
"I hate this," she says, crying softly.
"I live in Bensalem, but I don't want to go home. I don't want my mom to see me like this," she tells Rostucher.
Rostucher tells her to get back into treatment.
"You deserve better than this," she tells Brittany, holding her hand.
"I want it," Brittany says. "But then for a moment, I don't care."
"You're beautiful. You don't belong out here," Rostucher replies.
Brittany wipes her smudged mascara and hugs her.
"You remind me of my mom," she tells Rostucher. "You look like her."
"I don't even know you and I love you," Rostucher says. She gives Brittany her phone number.
As Rostucher walks away, a man across the street, yells, "Hey, Brit!" Brittany crosses Kensington to join the group of men.
Rostucher gets back in her Corolla, but before heading home, takes one last sweep of Kensington Avenue.
She stops suddenly at H Street. There, crossing the street is Drew. He spots her and waves.
She turns left and with a jolt, puts the car in park. She jumps out.
Tall, bearded, scruffy and painfully skinny with piercing blue eyes, Drew tightly hugs his mom on the sidewalk. He seems embarrassed, shameful.
He tells her he's working on a man's house and is able to stay there. She notices he has new sneakers and considers that maybe he's doing better.
"I haven't smoked crack in a couple of days," he tells her. "I'm not getting high that much."
She asks him if he's met Ed, the man in Needle Park, and offers a physical description.
"Can you watch out for him if you do?" she asks. "He's so very young."
Drew says he will.
Given gives Drew a big package of snacks, soup and ravioli. Drew pulls cans of Red Bull and coffee from his pockets and tosses them into the plastic bag. His mom suspects he'd swiped them from somewhere and would sell them on the street for heroin.
"You gotta be careful down here, Mom," he tells her.
They talk more before she asks the question. "You ready to go into treatment?"
"I want to get better by myself," he replies. "But I don't think it's gonna happen."
"You might change your mind," she says, hugging him, telling him she loves him.
"When you're ready, I'm here," she says, a familiar refrain.
As daylight fades, she steps back into her car and blows him a kiss.
Drew pulls his collar up against the winter chill and glances at the men hovering at the corner. He walks briskly up H Street away from them, head down, bags in hand.
Back into his world.
On Twitter: @barbaralaker