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Advocate for safe-injection sites dies of OD in Philly's heroin hellscape

Paul Yabor, who advocated for addiction services in Philadelphia, died of a drug overdose Tuesday in the epicenter of Philly's heroin epidemic.

Paul Yabor, 55, a longtime activist for drug addiction and HIV/AIDs services, died of a drug overdose Tuesday along the Conrail tracks in Kensington.
Paul Yabor, 55, a longtime activist for drug addiction and HIV/AIDs services, died of a drug overdose Tuesday along the Conrail tracks in Kensington.Read moreProvided by Prevention Point

Paul Yabor spent Tuesday volunteering with Prevention Point, handing out clean needles to drug users in Kensington, just as he had done many other times in the last 12 years.

Yabor, 55, had devoted much of his life to HIV/AIDS and injection drug-user advocacy. Since January, he had been working to bring a safe and supervised injection site to Philadelphia to replace the festering heroin hellscape in Kensington and Fairhill, where users gather to shoot up along a gorge forged by Conrail tracks.

At 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, Yabor was found  face down and unresponsive on a slope covered in used needles leading down to those tracks — the same tracks where he often handed out clean needles or offered help to those in the throes of addiction. He was pronounced dead there, a law enforcement source said.

The Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office said Yabor died of a drug overdose.

"Having been down there, it's terrible to think of him spending his last moments on earth there. It's nothing short of a disaster in my mind," said Yabor's friend Dan Martino. "And to think, if we had supervised injection sites, Paul wouldn't be dead."

Those in the advocacy community had no idea that Yabor, a recovering addict, was using again.

"Generally, we're in shock around here. It's been difficult for us as a staff and it's been difficult for the community members," said Jose Benitez, executive director of Prevention Point. "Paul wasn't just an advocate in Philly either, he's nationally known in the harm-reduction community. We've been getting calls and emails from people all over the country."

Yabor was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and much of his early advocacy focused on HIV/AIDS detection and prevention. It's unclear when or how he became an injection drug user, but Benitez said Yabor had worked and volunteered with Prevention Point for 12 years, and was in and out of recovery several times during that period.

"He was a person that was going through it, and all of these issues were very personal to him," Benitez said. "He was often advocating from experience."

Benitez said Yabor volunteered at the agency's syringe exchange program, helped with overdose-prevention training, and distributed the opioid antidote Narcan.

Martino, 32, director of the Olde Richmond Town Watch, met Yabor in January when they attended a meeting of the Mayor's Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic in Philadelphia.

Yabor was there to advocate for more addiction services in the city. Martino, who is also the secretary of the Olde Richmond Civic Association, was there to advocate for his community, which has been plagued by petty crime stemming from the heroin epidemic.

That night, Martino started a petition to have the Mayor's Task Force open a supervised injection site. As of Friday morning, that petition had 1,381 signatures.

Together, Martino, Yabor, and a third man, Paul Cherashore, advocated for safe, supervised injection sites against the hate, vitriol, and apathy some people have for addicts. Last year, more than 900 people died of overdoses in Philadelphia, and the city is on track for a 30 percent rise in drug fatalities in 2017.

"We have unsafe injection sites on every street corner in the city, and it's not working out," Martino said.

On Friday, the Mayor's Task Force released 18 recommendations for the first time, including that the city should consider supervised injection sites.

Martino said he and Yabor were slated to speak about supervised injection sites on a panel in June for AIDS Education Month.

Yabor showed no signs that he was actively using drugs, Martino said. His eyes were clear, his mind sharp.

Jose DeMarco, a community organizer with the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP Philadelphia, said he last saw Yabor Tuesday at Prevention Point when the two volunteered handing out clean needles together.

"Paul was saying, 'Jose, I'm so excited I just got my housing!' " DeMarco recalled. "He was going to rent a condo. He was really thrilled, and I was really thrilled for him."

Within hours, Yabor was dead.

Martino can't help but wonder if all those years Yabor was advocating for others, he actually was advocating for himself, too.

"Throughout his lifetime, without a doubt he helped hundreds. It's what he lived for," Martino said. "In some ways it seems like it was just as much to save himself as to save other people. There are so many of us who just wish he would have opened up to us about his struggle again.

"Now we need him more than ever," he said.

On LinkedIn, Yabor once wrote: "I live for my dreams and I dream with my eyes wide open. I see these dreams manifested in the sparkle of the eyes of children and in the eyes of sober souls who seek, desire and yearn to heal yesterday's nightmares and protect the slumber of tomorrow's dawn."

Staff writers Sam Wood and Don Sapatkin contributed to this article.