In 2012, we were tasked with trying to get our cousin Caitlin into rehab. Hers is a story that has been repeated thousands of times across the Delaware Valley. She was a 20-year-old daughter, sister, and mom. She was also profoundly addicted to heroin.
Other family members had tried to intervene, and now it was our turn. We found her and spent 36 hours together in Center City. We ate pizza, and burritos, and Chinese food, and ice cream. We watched bad TV. We walked the streets of Philadelphia. We lost our tempers. We joked. We hugged. We talked about her daughters. And we fought, sometimes in tears, with insurance companies to try to get her a place in rehab.
Two days after we dropped her off, Caitlin walked out the door of that rehab. We would never see her again. Instead, after searching for a ghost for five years, in Camden and in Philadelphia, her mom got the call that she was gone.
So much has changed in our lives since then. New jobs, marriage, a family. Yet, living in South Philadelphia today, Caitlin is everywhere. At Broad and Snyder, where we walk past needles on the ground to get to our son’s preschool a few blocks away. On our corners, where struggling people gather. In our playgrounds, where they sleep. And in our homes, where our neighbors inject, overdose, and die, in a ritual as familiar as it is tragic. Our neighborhood may not reach the heights of the problems in Kensington, but we lose a neighbor in our zip code at a rate of one a week, and that rate is growing faster than anywhere else.
Into that silent, lonely carnage comes courage. With the support of Mayor Jim Kenney and his administration, nonprofit leaders have stepped forward to form an organization called Safehouse, which will open its first overdose prevention site in a medical office building in South Philly. Like the needle exchanges that helped slow the AIDS epidemic, and which virtually everyone now sees as a public good, Safehouse seeks to sever drug use from a death sentence — the ultimate harm reduction.
It is fitting that Safehouse will open in a medical office. It will connect our neighbors who are struggling with a fresh chance, every single use, to get help. It will connect them to services that they desperately need. It will keep the neighborhood safe, meaning less needles and baggies on our sidewalks. And if something goes wrong, it will keep those addicted alive. For one more day, at least.
During the hearing about the legality of Safehouse’s plans, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain, on a political crusade to keep an overdose prevention site from opening, asked whether human beings prevented from dying at such a site would even count as “saved” if they later overdose.
The answer, of course, is yes. Even one more day matters. It matters because it is one more chance to seek treatment. It matters because it is one more day to kiss a loved one, or to create a memory, or to celebrate a birthday. But it is also more foundational than that. It matters because no amount of drugs in a person’s body can steal their humanity. Human beings, no matter how much they are struggling, deserve to live. Even one more day.
We saw it in those last hours with Caitlin. She had fallen hard, and fast. She was a person who lived a comfortable life, who was suddenly living on the streets, with the totality of her belongings in a plastic shopping bag. She was trying to keep her head above waves of sadness and addiction, and she was losing. You could see the toll. But something else was clear, too: that beneath it all, she was still the funny, feisty, determined, frustrating, wise, curious human being she had always been. Addiction had ruined her life, but it had never touched her soul.
At its core, Safehouse is a commitment to the humanity of all of us, addicted or not. One day more, one step at a time.
Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg and Jennifer Kates are public interest attorneys raising a family in South Philadelphia. Their cousin Caitlin would turn 28 years old this week.