PHILADELPHIA, Penn. — A nonprofit called Prevention Point is helping Philadelphia residents by fighting the opioid epidemic on the front lines.
Nish Patel and his coworkers at Prevention Point prepare clean needle packs to exchange with people using drugs in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, one of the largest open-air narcotic markets in the country.
"These are cookers, these are ties, this is antibiotic ointment, these are cottons this is sterile water and these are sanitary wipes,” Nish explained.
They're clean supplies you would need to inject drugs in a safer way.
It’s part of a public health practice called harm reduction. The idea is that people are going to use illegal drugs, so it’s better to try to keep them safe and out of jail than hoping everyone embraces total sobriety.
“Relapse happens, it’s a reality,” Nish said.
He knows, because he’s lived it.
“So, I started using really young. Most of the times that I’ve overdosed, it’s been when I’ve just gotten out of jail or just gotten out of treatment. I just remember waking up. Like I wake up on the ground, the ambulance is there, usually, sometimes. One time there was nobody there. There was just the spray, the thing next to me,” said Nish.
“It’s feels like death after that though,” he recalled.
In Kensington, people openly buy, sell and use drugs. Prevention Point is one of the few public health organizations working on the ground.
“This place has saved my life in multiple ways, literally, with the NARCAN it puts out in the streets. And then you know, it helped me find myself too,” Nish said.
It’s something Nish’s boss, Jose Benitez, says he’s heard before.
“He said it to me several times, we’ve saved his life, this organization, he’s alive, at least he feels he’s alive because the organization was here. People want to give back, you know what I mean, when people come through the program. Nish is a perfect example of that. He wants to give back,” said Benitez.
Benitez has been at the helm of Prevention Point for the last 13 years. He says the job is rewarding, but he and the employees are fighting to just to keep their heads above water.
“How many people have we lost this week, right? To either overdose or some kind of related violence,” said Benitez.
We tried speaking to people in Kensington. Some didn’t want to speak with us. Some said they wanted to, but wouldn’t for their own safety and ours. But we did meet Gary Valecce.
“We’re on Kensington Avenue. I come down here to get weed and some crystal meth,” said Valecce.
We asked him to describe how he sees Kensington.
“I see suffering. I see people happy, but they’re all high, everybody’s high,” Valecce said.
Valecce’s just one of the people in Kensington. There are a lot more. Many of them lined up to get clean needles once the exchange was set up.
Nish sometimes wonders how he pulled himself out
“From my graduating class, I believe there’s like seven or eight other people who passed away from overdoses. I feel like I’m the only one left. Why have I been kept alive? The only thing I can think of is that I’ve got to help other people. If I’m going to survive, then it’s got to be to help other people."