PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Many efforts are underway to address the opioid epidemic in Kensington but perhaps the most unusual is a resident-led mission called “Operation Save a Life.”
Moe Morrisette glides by a hand-painted wooden sign that seems ironic: “Hope Park.”
It’s at A and Indiana, ground zero of Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic, and there are no signs of hope apparent. Instead, a dozen or more men and women are openly using drugs—in the act of tying off their upper arms, poking needles into veins or sprawling semi-conscious on the grass. One young man is curled up, sitting motionless.
“Excuse me,” Morrisette calls out. “Is he okay?”
At first no one responds, but Morrisette is insistent.
“Just tap him, please,” he shouts, “Make sure he’s breathing.”
A woman nearby complies. The young man starts, looks up and slumps back into whatever reverie he was enjoying.
“Thank you,” calls Morrisette and pedals off.
Morrisette is on a bicycle, part of a patrol for Operation Save a Life, a volunteer mission he co-founded with his friend, Rich.
“We launched the program to train and to certify people to administer Narcan,” says Morrisette. “We are deploying teams of two on bicycles, armed with the Narcan, to save lives.”
The opioid epidemic in Kensington has elicited many responses. The City’s all-hands Resilience Project has accomplished many of its goals but public use and its consequences persist, impacting the entire community so deeply, residents have taken their own measures.
Operation Save a Life is one of the newer and more unusual ones.
Its model of Narcan bike patrols is unconventional. Its structure is loose; there’s no set schedule for the patrols. It’s not affiliated with any formal organization though Morrisette says he’s in the process of getting 501c3 status. He is a bit evasive about where he gets the Narcan kits.
But he, Rich and other volunteers seem genuinely sincere about their desire to save lives and improve the neighborhood.
“If you come from this place, and you’ve been around here which I have for many years, and seeing what it turned into, you would want to do something about it,” says Morrisette.
He sports a grill on his upper teeth and a few heavy gold chains but he is the quiet, understated partner in the enterprise, the calm to Rich’s whirlwind. While Morrisette mans a “command center” in a converted bus outside his house, Rich walks the block, picking up syringes and exhorting users to get off the street and into treatment, but not medically-assisted treatment.
“What difference does it make, a drug’s a drug, no, cut it out,” says Rich. “The only way you’re going to stop it, you have to clear these people’s systems, period. Everything must stop.”
Rich has many strong opinions about how to handle the opioid epidemic. He adamantly opposes a safe injection site, proposed for the area but tied up in a federal case about its legality. He doesn’t even like Prevention Point, which provides sterile needles to users.
“Everything I’m picking up out here is stuff they actually gave these people, that’s what really turns my stomach,” he says, shaking the now-full sharps disposal box he’s been filling with discards found on the street. “You’re giving them the water, you’re giving them the thing to tie off with and you’re giving them the needle and then you tell them to go right outside. They’re not hiding and they’re doing it. The cops don’t care. I’m tired of seeing it. You can’t go to any other neighborhood and see this, nowhere. I don’t care where you go, nowhere, so why are they just letting it happen? You’re going to hand them a needle, starting handing everyone that wants to rob a bank a gun then.”
Rich does not see Operation Save a Life as an enabling intervention, as he does prevention point or a safe injection site. Yet, in a way they are a mobile version of what the safe injection site hopes to do: preventing overdoses from becoming fatal.
They say they saved nine people the very first day they went out.
Their most famous rescue, though, came on a hot summer night when they were not on bikes but sitting on Morrisette’s steps.
“We were just enjoying the evening and somebody came up and told us somebody was around the corner dead and we went around the corner and sure enough, the person was overdosed,” Morrisette says.
Moe videotaped as they tried to bring him around and finally released Narcan into his nostril. The color returned to his face and he thanked them. They posted the video, terrifying and poignant, on their Facebook page. It has more than three million views. It’s easy to see why. The riveting drama that plays out daily in Kensington can be watched from a safe distance.
For Operation Save a Life, the only distance they measure is a three-mile loop through what they call the Red Zone, the area where illegal drugs are openly consumed. The territory’s lawlessness makes it feel inherently unsafe. The volunteers say, in fact, their presence, offering a bit more security, is a secondary part of the mission.
“It’s not just about saving lives,” says Dennis Payne, volunteer and neighbor, “It’s about saving the whole community.”