DEA Bringing New Strategy for Fighting Opioid Crisis to Philadelphia, City Vows to Improve Quality of Life in Hardest Hit Neighborhoods

Federal agents looking to train and empower neighborhood residents to spearhead prevention efforts

If neighborhoods long-besieged by tragedy and crime fueled by the expansive heroin and opioid epidemic are going to improve, residents need to be on the front lines pushing to make it happen.

That’s the message local and federal leaders had for those who live and work in Philadelphia’s Fairhill and Kensington neighborhoods at a community summit, “El Barrio Es Nuestro” (The Neighborhood Is Ours), about the drug crisis on Saturday morning.

In return, officials promised to make physical investments in the neighborhoods and provide more services to reduce crime, reverse poverty and treat those suffering from addiction.

“This disease is of, for and by the people. The solution needs to be of, for and by the people,” Roland Lamb, head of the city’s Office of Addiction Services, told the crowd of 238 people packed into The Salvation Army’s Tabernacle Corps Center at Mascher Street and Allegheny Avenue in Fairhill.

The event fused an ongoing city initiative, the Gurney Street Project, with a new Drug Enforcement Administration program, the 360 Strategy, where officials provided a snapshot of the problem before attendees brainstormed potential ways residents could attack them.

Vince Lattanzio
An anti-drug mural painted onto a wooden fence at Indiana and Kensington avenues across from McPherson Square in Philadelphia's Kensington section.

Kensington and Fairhill are at the epicenter of the city’s illegal drug trade. The city’s heroin supply is some of the purest and cheapest in the country. The addicted typically turn to the white powdery drug after becoming dependent on prescription painkillers.

Despite heavy local, state and federal policing, dealers come to the neighborhoods to sling opioids because the sections have long been known as places to score drugs. Most of the dealers and users don’t live in the communities, police say.

“People are trapped,” Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez said. The neighborhoods are smack in the middle of her district, the 7th. “It shouldn’t matter what your zip code is to have a quality of life.”

To reduce demand, officials say they need resident’s help. The DEA’s 360 Strategy will put a major focus on building anti-drug coalitions in the neighborhoods.

“Residents really have to take an active role in fighting back,” said Gary Tuggle, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s Philadelphia Field Office. Tuggle oversees DEA operations in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

“I realize in instances there’s fear, there’s frustration. Sometimes people have given up,” he added.

The 360 Strategy, which was first deployed in Pittsburgh in November 2015 and was examined by NBC10 in the special report Generation Addicted, expands the federal agency’s focus from solely hunting drug traffickers to undertaking community education and better scrutinizing of the medical community. The DEA regulates doctors and pharmacists’ prescribing practices.

NBC10 reporters Vince Lattanzio, Morgan Zalot and Denise Nakano explore the tragic world of heroin and opioid addiction in the Philadelphia area and beyond. This special long-form presentation is just one of a series of stories as part of our investigation. Dive into our in-depth coverage and many more stories here.

In Pittsburgh, the DEA has gone into schools educating students about how taking painkillers like OxyContin or Vicodin, for recreation or legitimate reasons, could quickly grow into an addiction. Agents have also had frank conversations with doctors and pharmacists about showing restraint when prescribing opioids.

Philly’s program will have those elements as well, the DEA says, but much attention will be paid to empowering community members to fight back against drug dealers and undertake prevention programs.

The DEA is partnering with the nonprofit Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) to form the coalitions. The groups, made up of leaders, youth, parents and others, will decide on programs and CADCA will provide training and help with grant writing to get them funded and deployed.

“We’re not going to tell them how to do things. We’re going to train them and guide them in how they should function,” Tuggle said.

Carlton Hall, CADCA’s acting Vice President, said the efforts are a key weapon that will complement ongoing law enforcement efforts.

“What we really have to do is really prevent folks from falling into the river in the first place,” he said.

The DEA hopes to eventually have coalitions in every city neighborhood.

Vince Lattanzio
More than 200 residents and activists from Philadelphia's Fairhill and Kensington neighborhoods listen to a presentation by city officials about the current status of the heroin and opioid crisis.

As a sign of its commitment to the neighborhoods, the city vowed to reduce blight: Street lights will be fixed; trash will be removed; abandoned homes will be boarded up or knocked down.

Mayor Jim Kenney brought out a number of cabinet members including Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, L&I Commissioner David Perri, Fire Commissioner Adam Theil and Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis, whose office is heading up the city’s program named for the street at the epicenter of drug use and dealing.

“You live here and it’s heartbreaking to see what the heroin and opioid crisis is doing,” Kenney said adding that problems circle back to poverty. He ended on a conciliatory note, apologizing for how long it’s taken the city to respond to the epidemic. The city launched a task force to address the crisis earlier this month.

DiBerardinis received applause from the crowd after mentioning a plan to close off access to a Conrail freight train trench running alongside Gurney Street, nicknamed “The Tracks” by the addicted. A three-quarter of a mile stretch filled with trash and homeless encampments, the trench is used as a place to shoot up heroin. It’s also notoriously dangerous with assaults and robberies happening often.

In the heart of Philadelphia’s open drug market, there’s an artery carrying drug addicted people to their high. A story from our award-winning 2016 special report on the heroin epidemic: “Generation Addicted: The New War on Addiction”.

The managing director also pledged a $250,000 investment in homeless and addiction services specifically for the area.

Officials expect to have the coalitions formed and working within six months. Some of the physical improvements are already underway with L&I inspectors targeting abandoned homes along Gurney Street.

Some in attendance were heartened by the efforts, but others said they’ve heard similar promises before.

One longtime advocate who works with those suffering from drug addiction quipped, “We’ll see.”

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