The outreach worker went to the train bridge on Tulip Street on Friday morning, looking for people who needed to be heard. People in addiction.
She saw the thin man in a gray hoodie by the end of the tunnel, sweeping the sidewalk with single-minded intent. He called himself Johnny.
Brooke Feldman, a social work student and an advocate for people in addiction, talked with him for an hour by the tunnel, one of the four heroin encampments in Kensington. And though he looked to be only in his 40s, he told her a story that tread a familiar path: one of years of addiction and trauma and loss. He had overdosed before, up on the hill above the train tunnel. She knew he was struggling.
There was a meeting about safe injection sites Tuesday: places where people in addiction could use drugs under medical supervision and get into treatment. Johnny said he’d heard of them and liked the idea. He wanted to tell people about it. He said he’d come to the meeting. Brooke would pick him up.
The weekend passed. Johnny slept on his pallets and kept his routine. Pushing his orange shopping cart to nearby bars, where sympathetic bartenders collected cans for him. Sweeping the sidewalk in the afternoon and late into the night, as the fog hung in the tunnels, to the point where he woke people up.
“Guy stayed up all night sweeping,” said Mike Hannon, who pitched his tent next to Johnny’s pallet on the sidewalk. “He’d sweep nothing after a while.” That was Johnny’s way.
Mike had been sleeping in the tunnel for three months. He and Johnny had been friends of a sort, companions in a misery no one should know, surviving in addiction in a tunnel in Philadelphia.
Tulip Street is the newest encampment in Kensington, and in Mike’s telling, the calmest. And that’s where we are now in Philadelphia. As the city debates a safe injection site and tries to open more shelters, our heroin encampments are rated for cleanliness, friendliness and relative safety.
And still Johnny would find himself in trouble with his neighbors. His routine bothered some people. Sometimes they got in his face. Sometimes he apologized to the point of tears.
But on Sunday night, on the pallet, he and Mike stayed up late, and for once, Johnny wasn’t sweeping. They talked about their lives, and Johnny told stories, the sort that drift between what is real and what their teller wants to be real. And Mike thought maybe all Johnny needed was someone to talk to. It seemed to calm him.
Brooke arrived at the tunnel on Tuesday, ready to drive Johnny to the meeting. His cart was empty, his mattress stripped of blankets, his pallets propped up across the street. Mike had found the body. At first he thought Johnny was sleeping. His head was slumped into his chest. The spray of Narcan didn’t work.
Mike started cleaning up Johnny’s stuff, but soon there wasn’t much left. After the coroner’s office took Johnny, the people in the tunnel took nearly everything else. Wednesday morning, he remained a John Doe. No one in the tunnels knew his last name.
Brooke’s eyes welled. She had lost a mother to addiction in Kensington and had gotten sober herself in Kensington. Now she stood in a train tunnel, and the man whose voice deserved to be heard was gone, too.
The meeting would start in a few hours. She would have to try to speak for him.