Pain & Frustration: Heroin's Effect on Neighborhoods

John Cooper, a former heroin user in recovery for 15 years, shares his experiences around the deadly epidemic at a April 28th community meeting in Port Richmond. NBC10 - Vince Lattanzio

Dawn Hanratty warned the group she was going to have a tough time as she slipped the microphone from a chrome stand in a Port Richmond high school cafeteria Thursday night.

The mother wailed as she talked about the death of her 24-year-old daughter, Amber, from a heroin overdose. Police discovered her body in an overgrown abandoned lot in Kensington. She was hidden from view by tall grass.

"My heart is so broke," the short blonde with a long braid said between sobs. "I can’t move forward. I’m so stuck in the moment of her dying."

Hanratty was one of nearly two dozen people who attended a community meeting at Maritime Academy Charter High School organized by David Oh, an at-large city councilman. The fifth in a series of seven across Philadelphia, the forums are designed to let residents share the pains they confront from the expanding heroin and opioid crisis in the city.

Oh, a former prosecutor and Cobbs Creek resident, is preparing for a May 20th hearing at City Hall on the epidemic. His goal is to come up with a citywide coordinated plan to fight back against the deadly issue and he wants a real picture of how neighborhoods are affected by the problem.

"What I think often times has been missing is that we haven't purposefully and methodically gone out and talked to our communities," Oh said from the cafeteria's worn wooden stage. "If we don’t bring everyone to the table, we will struggle."

The meeting opened with a clip from NBC10’s Generation Addicted project. The in-depth investigation explored the tragic world of heroin and opioid addiction in the Philadelphia area and highlighted new efforts aimed at helping stem the epidemic and help those suffering.

The room was a microcosm of struggles endured daily by residents of the River Wards, the neighborhoods of Fishtown, Port Richmond, Bridesburg and parts of Kensington -- the East Coast’s heroin capital. Homeowners looking to prevent drug dealing on their corners; Business owners frustrated how the drug market hurts their wallet; Mothers mourning their children’s suffering or death.

Tears flowed out from behind Mary Quigley’s black rimmed glasses as she talked about her 30-year-old daughter’s struggle with heroin addiction. Quigley feels helpless to get her daughter quality treatment.

"I’m trying to put her in the best place I could, but I don’t have the money to do that and I just think she’s so broken because she’s just embarrassed," she said.

Hanratty’s been searching for a support group of parents who’ve lost their children to drug overdose. She knows more than 600 people died in Philadelphia last year, but she says no one’s talking.

"Where are all these people who lost their babies, because I’m not the only one. Where are they?" she asked.

The epidemic’s effects manifest in different ways for other community members.

After raising their kids in the suburbs, Jerry Tannenbaum and his wife moved back into the city two years ago. Since then, they’ve confronted drug dealers outside their Fishtown home. They used to be dealing from the couple’s stoop, he said, but he’s since got them to move across the street.

The squat man said he’s reached out to the city and police about the issues via an email address advertised in the newspaper, but has never heard back from anyone.

"As a citizen, we’re not un-compassionate, we’re willing to do something, but we don’t know what to do," he said.

A sharps container sits in the trunk of Kae Anderson’s car. She’s filled it with more than 200 needles picked up off the street in Kensington where she works as the commercial corridor coordinator at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation.

She also bears personal scars from heroin’s scourge. "This year along I’ve already lost two of my friends from heroin addiction," the young woman shared.

Anderson asked Oh to tour the area with her and shared how community groups are working to form a coalition that could apply for grants to better the community.

Don Gould, a lifelong resident of the area, lamented over slowly being forced to relocate his business east to get away from the crime brought on by the drug problem.

"Councilman, we need more police. I don’t know how you sweeten the pot. We need more police. Plain and simple," he concluded.

Oh, while saying he’s been looking at ways to bolster police across the city, differed with Gould’s view saying arrests won’t solve the problem.

George Kappe, captain of Philadelphia Police’s 26th District, and SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel listened to the community’s pain from the audience. Addressing the group later, Kappe asked people to take advantage of a new prescription pill drop-off box at the district headquarters.

Nestel shared stories of his interactions with those suffering from the disease of addiction including a 15-year-old boy who described a heroin high like being "wrapped in a warm blanket."

"What do I do with that?" Nestel asked. "I don’t think the answer is with the police. I think we provide help and I think we save some lives, but we’re not the answer on this one."

"I can tell you that we try...but it’s tough when we’re dealing with 'it’s like being wrapped in a warm blanket,'" he said.

The emotional two hour meeting ended with Oh inviting the attendees to next month’s hearing reminding them that more community support can serve as a catalyst for change.

As others walked out into the cold rain, Dawn Hanratty lingered in the school. She talked with Oh's staff about being connected with groups to help her cope with Amber's death.

Reaching into her purse, she pulled out four worn photos of Amber, a petite girl with a big smile. One is of Amber squeezing her children -- a 6-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl. Two new casualties scarred by the crisis.

Amber Hanratty was just 24 years old when a heroin overdose took her life, her mother Dawn said. The young woman leaves behind a 6-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl. NBC10 - Vince Lattanzio