Magazine Features

A New Day for Overdose Victims

Some people go to work every day, but wonder, Am I making a difference?

One person who doesn’t ask that question is Susan Jones, the coordinator of The Salvation Army’s New Day Drop–in Center in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. In the past year, Jones has used NARCAN nasal spray to help save the lives of two people from opioid overdoses. At New Day, as many as 15 people have been revived from overdoses.

“Multiple people have been revived here at the center by paramedics,” Jones says.

Jones first administered NARCAN to an overdosed woman. The staff realized something was amiss when she failed to return from a restroom at the center.

“I immediately recognized she had overdosed and we had to get into action,” Jones recalls. “She was probably not even overdosed for a minute and a half and we were able to revive her. That’s remarkable that we could have that kind of response as a team. In hindsight, it’s amazing that we have access to these kinds of things and were able to respond as quickly as possible.”

Knowing the signs

Arielle Curry, director of anti–human trafficking for the New Day Stop Trafficking program, The Salvation Army’s anti–trafficking efforts in Philadelphia, said the staff at New Day is trained to monitor the bathroom. They also build relationships with the women and know their habits.

“Had that initial piece not happened, it doesn’t matter if you NARCAN someone when it’s too late,” Curry said. “It’s a process. It’s not just administering the NARCAN, it’s everything leading up to it.”

Jones later saved a man who had overdosed on the sidewalk outside New Day, but she had help.

“It was definitely a team effort,” Jones said. “Our staff was integral in getting him into a safe space. There’s a rescue breath position you have to get the person in and that’s all a team effort. Thankfully I’ve been trained a couple of times, so I was familiar with the steps.

“There were other community members around. One person was doing rescue breaths, another person was administering NARCAN, while another person was calling an ambulance, still another person was checking the surroundings and making sure that not a lot of people were crowding around. There’s a lot that goes into making sure that a person’s rights are preserved, while also contributing to saving their life.”

A new danger

Every staffer at New Day is trained and carries a NARCAN pack that includes an oximeter, which measures oxygen levels; a pair of gloves because some of the opioid drugs can permeate the skin; one–way breathing masks, which go over a victim’s face for administering rescue breaths; and two doses of the NARCAN nasal spray.

Jones said her training in administering rescue breaths was a key in saving the two lives.

“Opioids are depressants and slow your system down,” Jones said. “What happens is you’re not getting oxygen to the brain or the heart and your body is legitimately shutting down. You’ve stopped breathing and you don’t have your blood flowing. It’s important to do the rescue breaths in addition to the NARCAN.”

New Day is an oasis in the middle of Kensington’s “open–air” street track, where heroin, crack, and commercial sex are prevalent. Kensington was once known for having the purest form of heroin in the nation, but the new drug of choice is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used for pain management in cancer patients that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

“Fentanyl is the most recent aspect of the opioid crisis,” Curry says. “In Kensington, fentanyl really hit in the last three to five years.

More overdoses

“People used to come here from all over for the pure heroin and it’s always been a hub for crime, especially drugs. It’s never been this bad before. The overdose numbers are significantly higher because of the introduction of fentanyl. That really is the game–changer in all this.”

People snort or inject fentanyl and some mix it with crack and K–2 synthetic marijuana. Curry has even heard of fentanyl being mixed with methamphetamines.

“People’s overdoses are looking different because of all the mixing,” Curry said. “It’s much stronger than heroin so people who have historically used heroin use the same dose laced with fentanyl and it can instantly kill them. Some people are taking it expecting a higher high, but in reality, it just puts them in overdose. That’s why we’re seeing the insane influx of overdoses in this community.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency last year. In 2017, Philadelphia saw 1,217 deaths from opioid overdoses.

“No part of Philadelphia is exempt from experiencing the opioid crisis. It’s all–hands–on–deck here in Kensington,” Curry said. “The mayor of Philadelphia has asked all services to step up and The Salvation Army is really instrumental, as well as many others in this community, to enhancing and increasing services to this population.”

Big plans ahead

Jones said New Day now sees 80 to 120 women a day, a significant increase from previous years.

“It’s exciting to see that more and more women are trusting the space,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, New Day received government funding in January to hire three full–time case managers at the center to focus specifically on the link between human trafficking and the opioid crisis.

“The unique thing is really to have dedicated personnel to focus on housing and detox and those kinds of really important tangible needs that we don’t always have time to focus on,” Jones said.

New Day is also in the process of launching a police–assisted diversion program in Kensington that would connect women accused of prostitution with social services instead of arresting them.

“That is pretty profound and monumental in terms of looking at these women as victims rather than as criminals,” Curry said. “We’ll connect them with social services rather than having this revolving door where they’re picked up by Vice, booked, go to jail, stay there for six months, and come out to the same place that they left. Instead, it’s intervening once law enforcement picks them up.”

Jones added, “We have found that a lot of women, whether they currently have a trafficker or not, at some point in their life, if they are caught up in commercial sexual exploitation, will have a trafficker.”

Light in the darkness

Curry said the center will hire two to four new staffers just to focus on the diversion program, which will operate out of a satellite location about eight blocks away.

“We’re growing rapidly,” Jones said.

The Salvation Army already operates “New Day, New Home,” a transitional housing program in a Philadelphia suburb.

The drop–in center is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday thru Thursday. Women can find group meetings, Bible studies, food, showers, case management, and other help. The center is also open from 9 p.m. to midnight on Thursday, but with a more abbreviated schedule.

“It’s just really low–key where the women can come and shower and eat and talk and just have a place that feels like home for a couple of hours before going back out,” says Jerrica Benabe, who is on the night staff.

Benabe, a pastor’s daughter who grew up in Kensington, said she laments what has happened to the neighborhood, which at night is home to frequent drug activity and forced commercial sexual exploitation.

“It’s gotten a lot worse with the drugs and the violence since I was a kid,” she says. “It’s definitely been a big change. It’s really sad and heartbreaking. It’s rough seeing the area and how women are affected, but it’s a ministry I enjoy being a part of.”

That’s also the case for Jones and Curry. Jones said when she heard about New Day and its nonjudgmental support and care for women, she was convinced.

“A light bulb went off and I decided it was absolutely a place that I would want to be, day in and day out,” she said. “My faith in Jesus points to Him caring for those who are vulnerable and are the outcasts of society. My faith in Jesus is flourishing here because I get to have conversations with people about the experiences they’ve had in their lives and their joys and sorrows.

A calling, not a job

Jones said the stories the women often share are heartbreaking, but there are also times when they just enjoy talking and laughing about life.

“We look at each woman as someone who is created in the image of God,” Jones said. “They have so much more to them than these stories. They have a purpose on this earth. It makes me want to keep coming back and spending time with the women.”

Jones said she has seen the women care for each other. She recalls one woman giving her only coat to a friend.

“I’m constantly in awe of the resilience and strength of the women,” Jones said. “Seeing people’s generosity as they care for each other has been another continuing motivation. It’s not just the staff doing the work. The women take care of each other and it’s pretty amazing.”

Curry called working with vulnerable women in anti–trafficking the “calling on my life.”

“What keeps me doing this work is knowing there is such an immense need,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for six years, but the need is still there. No one person can address this issue alone. It has to be collaborative. It’s huge to know we can fill the void and meet women in the trenches.

“Just seeing the small victories and the impact we have in women’s lives is profound. They feel safe and feel heard when they come in here. This is important especially for a population that isn’t heard, valued, or given a choice. To know that we’ve created this safe space is invaluable. It keeps us all going.”

by Robert Mitchell