Had we made better choices

After I blogged some photos from covering addiction in 1995, I was invited to write about the experience for the online Opinion section at Philly.com. Here’s what I said:

It was a memorably cold day more than 20 years ago and I was walking around one of Philadelphia’s most distressed neighborhoods with a veteran police official who was known for not wearing a gun on his holster.

But when he rapped on the unlatched front door of a vacant row house and pushed it open with his nightstick, everyone huddled inside seemed to know the drill. He gave no orders and they asked no questions but clearly understood that it was time to stand up, put down the drugs and walk away.

One young man dashed out the door sideways, as if to run an errand. Others staggered and stumbled and struggled to button their coats. I took some pictures, though I was worried that the freezing temperatures might cause my film to crack or tear.

This block of North Darien Street near the historic Fairhill Burial Ground honestly could have passed for a war zone, with many homes boarded up and trash strewn among abandoned cars.

But some of the homes were still occupied by “decent people” – code words for neighbors who managed to avoid addiction, the drug trade and the criminal justice system. And one of the neighbors had called the police to deal with this popular drug house one more time.

So, recent news reports on the growing opioid crisis made me think about the pictures I took that December day in 1995. Decades after moving here I am still struggling to understand the intersections of guns, drugs, poverty, homelessness, addiction and other issues that lead to so much suffering in our city.

I am no expert on solutions to addiction, but we can’t expect that driving people who use drugs out of a park or a rail yard or a church will do anything but lead them to gather elsewhere.

I wonder what might change if we could send out more intervention workers and fewer police officers. Could we turn our jails into shelters or treatment centers or maybe harm reduction centers?

Now, I am learning about the city’s new plan to address the immediate crisis but we must also sustain that support for as long as it takes.

Meanwhile, I spend a lot of time thinking this city might be better off had we made better choices when I took these pictures.

Photo at top of page: Men and women walk away after police drove them from a drug house on North Darien Street following complaints from neighbors in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia in December, 1995

Addiction in Philadelphia, 1995

Local news organizations seem to be rediscovering addiction in Philadelphia recently — as overdose deaths have been skyrocketing in recent years — but it wasn’t a new problem when I took these photos in the Fairhill section of the city in 1995 and 1996. Maybe we could have done more then.

In the photo at the top of this page, men were pacing around a barrel fire for warmth in a vacant lot on West Indiana Avenue near Germantown Avenue. Drugs, needles and syringes were being sold in an open air market on the nearest corner and users were gathered inside nearby vacant houses, many of which were eventually demolished by the city.

A man and women gather some of their belongings after police ordered them out of a vacant house that neighbors complained was being occupied by drug users. Headlines at the time called these spaces “shooting galleries.”

A Philadelphia Police officer looks into a tomb inside the historic Fairhill Burial Ground. The door had been kicked in and drug paraphernalia littered the space inside.

Philadelphia Fire Department medics demonstrate treating overdose cases with naloxone for a newspaper reporter during a ride-along.

Men and women walk away after police drove them from a drug house on North Darien Street following complaints from neighbors.