Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

In Center City, faces of the opiate addiction crisis

Matt sits on a crate outside Jefferson Station, panhandling for the $10 bag of heroin that will get him through the next few hours.

Matt, 28, of Montgomery County, gets ready for bed under the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Matt, 28, of Montgomery County, gets ready for bed under the Pennsylvania Convention Center.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Matt sits on a crate outside Jefferson Station, panhandling for the $10 bag of heroin that will get him through the next few hours.

Some nights, the 28-year-old Army veteran from Horsham sleeps in the doorways of Midtown Village boutiques, other nights in the underpass outside the Convention Center.

He tries not to think of the life he had, not so long ago, in his suburban hometown: an apartment, a $25,000 truck, a landscaping business with his father, a king-size bed. Tries not to dwell on the question he cannot answer: "What are you doing with yourself?"

Not 50 feet away on this stretch of sidewalk at 12th and Market, another Matt, this one 30 years old and from Allentown, zips up his battered backpack. Perhaps some walking will ease the pain and nausea of his withdrawal, he hopes. It has been six days since his last hit of heroin, he said.

He arrived in Philly six months ago on a Greyhound bus. He came to the city, he said, for the open-air heroin markets in Kensington. "I never seen that before until I got to Philadelphia." He sleeps on a bench in Independence Mall.

Jaime, 33, from Fishtown, sits on a crate on the corner. She's been living on the streets of Center City for a year and a half. She once had a job at a car wash, a rented home. She once had custody of her 16-year-old daughter, whom she has not seen in four years.

Nodding off on her crate, Jaime fumbled with photos of her daughter. She wants to send her a collage. "I want her to know that I'm still looking on from a distance," she said.

One random block, three strangers, three strikingly similar stories of heroin addiction - stories that now play out on sidewalks all across Center City. Stories that are reshaping the face of homelessness in Philadelphia.

On Sunday, I wrote about how the city is taking steps to treat its growing homeless population through new targeted outreach and collaborative efforts from city officials, business owners, and advocates for the homeless. The idea is to figure out the best ways to harness the city's limited resources.

For the approach to work, it must address two very different homeless populations. The city has already had success reaching out to one group - the chronically homeless, whom I wrote about last week - by getting many long-term homeless people into supportive housing. But a second group, the newly homeless, is swelling, thanks to the opiate addiction crisis.

(City outreach workers counted 7,100 homeless people in Philadelphia in 2015, an increase of 435 people from the previous year.)

The city is working to meet the needs of this growing population with specialized shelters, addiction services, and mental-health treatment specifically targeted for young people, said Arthur C. Evans Jr., commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services. Many of the newly homeless in Philly are young and addicted, and many are new to the city, he said.

You don't have to travel far to encounter the ravages of the addiction crisis tearing at suburban communities and small towns across the country. You can just walk through Center City and talk to the young people you meet on the sidewalk.

Matt's story is a sadly familiar one. He said he began taking Percocet while serving in the Army in Afghanistan, after suffering a graze wound to his shoulder. Home from war, he said, he graduated to heroin. To feed his habit, he hawked his grandmother's expensive jewelry, he said with shame.

He recently called his parents. They said they would be there for him if he went back into recovery. They did not invite him home.

On the streets of Philly, he has met others like himself. Like Andy, who is 25 and from Doylestown, and who also is addicted to heroin. Matt and Andy and some other friends sometimes sleep in the large entranceway of the Cella Luxuria furniture store on Chestnut Street, the storefront's designer displays framing their makeshift bedroom.

On Monday, Matt chose instead to sleep in the underpass outside the Convention Center, where dozens seek shelter each night. There, Matt bunks near Jesse, another suburban kid hooked on dope. The two passed a recent night talking of past Memorial Day weekends spent in large backyards with their families - "the normal life," Matt said.

Monday, after taking the El to Frankford to get that $10 bag, after walking two blocks where dealers yell "Dope . . . dope . . . dope," after injecting the drugs and watching the neighborhoods pass by in a blur from the window of the train, Matt made his way back to the Convention Center. About 75 other homeless people were already settling in for another night outside.

People stumbled by. Nearby, a man and woman were fighting. Matt set up his cardboard mattress. He worried about his next hit.

"I don't want to be here," he said, pulling up his blanket.