It only took moments to see the impact. Stray uncapped needles on the street, open-air drug dealers calling out for buyers, and people struggling with opioid addiction dipping out on the sidewalk were among the scenes in the area surrounding Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street in Philadelphia.
For Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, the tour of what law enforcement called the nation’s “ground zero” for opioid addiction was an eye-opening experience for the former FBI special agent.
Fitzpatrick called the visit “surreal” and he explained it reinforced the importance of the the battle against the drug epidemic that killed more than 70,200 Americans in 2017.
During his visit, Fitzpatrick spoke with officials from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, a Kensington -based ministry working to shelter those on the road to recovery and protect the youth of the neighborhood, and Kay McBride, a Bucks County mother who knows the Philadelphia streets well after her son’s battle with opioid addiction.
Inside a relativity nondescript building under the Market-Frankford El, Fitzpatrick met with Buddy Osborn, the senior pastor at The Rock Calvary Chapel of Kensington. Part ministry, part boxing gym, the tidy and modern facility featured local kids boxing to keep them off the streets.
Osborn gave the congressman a tour of the building and showed off the rooms where job seekers and kids can do work, a bunk room and living space for those on the path to recovery, the main chapel, and an outdoor covered shelter that is used to bring about 40 people off the streets and into a warm place on the coldest of nights.
“We give them hope,” Osborn said of the shelter.
“We don’t get many problems because they respect us.”
As he showed off the facility, Osborn proudly boasted of those who have been helped, including an center intern who previously was addicted to opioids and a 20-year-old man who was kept off the streets and now is a journeyman for the operating engineers while becoming a professional boxer.
The Rock Calvary Chapel extends its outreach by bringing in missionaries to work the neighborhood. They also train missionaries from around the country to bring aid to those dealing with addiction in their own communities.
While speaking with the congressman and the two lawmen from the state attorney general’s office, Osborn said his team is needing to use more than one dose of naloxone to reverse overdoses on the streets outside their facility. The drugs are getting stronger, he said, blaming the rise of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid often used in heroin.
Osborn said the majority of addicts on the streets of Kensington are from outside the city limits, including Bucks County.
Bucks Countians who are addicted to heroin often head to Kensington for cheap and easily access to drugs. Many times, as Osborn said, they don’t end up leaving the city.
Issac Caraway, the regional director of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigations, knows the streets of Kensington well and said plenty of their investigations in the area end up leading to Bucks County.
First Deputy Chief of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office John Kitzinger, a former FBI special agent who knew Fitzpatrick, backed up Caraway’s statement on the link between Philadelphia and Bucks County heroin investigations.
On the rise in the region is the high-powered crystal methamphetamine that is taken along with heroin, Caraway said.
Fitzpatrick’s visit to the neighborhood was facilitated by New Hope mother McBride, who approached the congressman about heading to Kensington while at an event in Newtown.
The trip to the city hit McBride hard. She knows the pain of learning her son had overdosed in the city and feeling hopeless.
McBride told NewtownPANow.com that her son, who is now 30, started taking pain pills prescribed by a doctor following a surgery in college. From there, his addiction grew and he became hooked on heroin.
While her son is in recovery now, McBride wanted Fitzpatrick to see the effects of the epidemic, one that he will have an impact on as the new chairman of the congressional Bipartisan Heroin Task Force.
“This is something you need to see. Everyone should experience this,” McBride said.
Two blocks from Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street, a block railway bridge is home to a small corner park and display that shows local residents offering hope that the epidemic will end and their neighborhood will return to normal. Right around the corner is Tusculum Street, where scenes for the “Rocky” movie were filmed decades ago.
Fitzpatrick and McBride looked through the pictures and statements from the area residents.
As he stood near the entryway to the SEPTA El Somerset station, Fitzpatrick marveled at the amount of trash on the ground and the zombie-like state of those who were high.
Fitzpatrick said he aims to have the task force tackle law enforcement, health care, pharmaceutical, border security, insurance roadblocks to recovery, and other policy that will aid in the fight against the opioid epidemic.
One key policy point Fitzpatrick is looking at is the expansion of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program that gives doctors the ability to see if patients have filled controlled substance prescriptions in other nearby states. Pennsylvania already is taking part in the program but many states are not.
“I want Bucks County to have a loud voice in this,” he said.