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Mural Arts as harm reduction: 'Today was my 24th overdose reversal'

The Mural Arts Kensington Storefront "is a healing place - a place for people to come and stay well, and not use for the next three, four hours."

Callie Curry, a/k/a Swoon, works with people at the Mural Arts Kensington Storefront.
Callie Curry, a/k/a Swoon, works with people at the Mural Arts Kensington Storefront.Read moreSTEVE WEINIK / Mural Arts

This is the fourth in an occasional series about the Kensington Storefront, a space for art and healing at the front lines of the city's opioid epidemic. Part One covered the launch. Part Two examined what it takes to make art with people in the throes of addiction. Part Three was about the struggle to make a visual impact in a community marked by blight.

In the lull between the afternoon class, a crafting session called Tea & Textiles, and the early evening letter-writing workshop, a man rushed into the Mural Arts Kensington Storefront calling for help. Roz Pichardo followed him back outside to deliver one Narcan dose, then a second, then a third, to a man who had overdosed on the sidewalk nearby.

"Today was my 24th overdose reversal," said Pichardo, who runs a weekly group called Voices of Survivors in the space, a one-year-old experiment that's testing a theory of art as harm reduction at ground zero of the city's heroin epidemic.

The Storefront, she said, "is a healing place — a place for people to come and stay well, and not use for the next three, four hours."

But while Philadelphia debates the merits of a safe-injection site, the area immediately surrounding the Storefront has quietly, and almost accidentally, helped fill the void.

"People have a sense of security — they know somebody close by can save them because we all carry Narcan," Pichardo said, just as at Prevention Point up the street. "It would be so many more lives saved if there were more places like that."

After a year on Kensington Avenue, the Storefront has become an institution in the community, serving around 70 people a day. There are a handful of elderly neighborhood residents, sometimes a parent with kids, but often the customers are people dealing with addiction, homelessness, and trauma.

With colorful artwork on the walls, it no longer looks like a vacant former cellphone store. There's a little beauty in here now, and a lot of sorrow. Much of the art deals with addiction. A few pieces feature photos of Storefront regulars who have died, made for the makeshift memorial services held on the sidewalk out front.

Last Tuesday was a special occasion — the final day of a monthlong residency by the Brooklyn-based artist Callie Curry, who works under the name Swoon. She'll return to run more workshops and install a mural in the fall.

With Mother's Day approaching, she invited participants to make cards — to send via the postal service to their mothers, or via a "transformation box" into the universe at large.

But the topic was an emotional one. Many said their mothers were deceased or estranged. The mere mention of Mother's Day left one man sobbing in a corner.

Another, who stopped in to fill a few water bottles from the tap, was stoic as he dashed off a quick card. He said he was on his way to Center City to see his mother, who, like him, is homeless.

Jamal Jones, 36, said the painful anniversary of his mother's death was part of what led up to his relapse, just three days earlier, after two years clean. He wrote a letter to his mother for the transformation box, and deliberated over a second, more difficult, missive to the mother of his 6-year-old twin daughters.

"I talk to my mom every day," Jones said. "As far as the letter to my kids' mother, I don't know if that's going to help. I know she's doing it by herself right now, and that's not an easy thing."

Some were too jumpy or distracted to sit and focus. They dropped by for the snacks — clementines, string cheese, and cranberry juice. One very young woman, wearing pajama pants and slippers, wandered in just long enough to hug everyone in the room before drifting back out to the street.

Kenan Nameli, 50, on the other hand, settled in for the afternoon. A landscaper who'd been clean for the better part of a year, Nameli said he relapsed about a month ago. He's been staying in an "abandominium" in Norris Square since then.

He said he has been "procrastinating" getting clean, though he's aware of the risks.

"My sister overdosed; she passed in September. My brother-in-law passed in August. My cousin died in January of opioid complications. Do I want to be the fourth? No, I do not."

He said the Storefront is helping him work toward his goals. He's a regular at the workshops, and has even been cast in a play that will be staged by the Renegade Company in September.

"This place, for many hours out of the week, helps to keep us off the street, teaches us to be creative, gives us a chance to look inside ourselves and see what we can be," he said. "I've never been dedicated to something like this in my life. They taught me how to collect myself."

Curry said she had to adapt her workshops to the clientele at the Storefront — to be more flexible, and allow people to work on their own terms.

"A lot of what this is about is having a place to calm down, to focus, to feel supported. In some ways the creative work is just a vehicle for that," she said.

A stack of "life maps" made by clients unpack difficult narratives — a woman's visual diary of rape and self-harm, a spiral of incarceration and unemployment, a progression from heavy drinking to pills to heroin.

Yet, the artwork has surpassed her expectations. Amid all the anguish, she said, "people are really open to speaking a very creative, metaphoric, imaginative language."

She'll return in October to run more workshops and install a mural based on the work at the Storefront.

Mural Arts' executive director, Jane Golden, said the next steps are trying to figure out how to make a bigger impact, whether with longer hours, an expanded space, more large-scale public artwork or the on-staff behavioral health specialist she's looking to bring in soon.

Until now, that work has taken a backseat to more immediate needs, like offering Narcan and CPR trainings, and bringing in Prevention Point mobile treatment van each week for wound care.

Jose Benitez, executive director of Prevention Point, called the Storefront "a work in progress."

"What I do think it's doing is meeting people where they are in terms of their addiction, and then also addressing the trauma that comes with drug use and poverty."

Also on the to-do list is getting better data on how many referrals are being made. Staff say they're connecting people to recovery programs every week, but they're still sorting out how to track that.

There's also no data on how many regulars have been lost since the program began.

Sometimes, Pichardo said, they just stop showing up at the Storefront. Many do not carry ID, so no one is notified if they die.

"The hardest part to deal with is when you got to plan a vigil for someone you've grown to love, and everybody else has given up on them — the people they knew in the past, because of their addiction. We've become their family. We've taken that role."