BY ANDREA CANTOR – PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY
On a typical, sunny morning outside City Hall, a rather untypical occurrence happened — children handed out jars filled with opioid needles to city officials.
The unusual gifts were a part of a Kensington grassroots campaign called, “Need a Little Help,” a word-play title for the group’s mission to end the ongoing epidemic that has ravaged the neighborhood.
In Kensington, adults have long picked up and disposed of dirty syringes children find while playing outside. But about eight months ago, the neighborhood started to jar the needles as a way to ask for government’s help. “We are putting this in your hands to say ‘you wouldn’t want these needles on your front porch and we don't either,’” said Shane Claiborne who started Need a Little Help and is well-known Christian activist in the community.
On June 22, Need a Little Help invited several City officials, including Mayor Jim Kenney – who was unable to attend – to hear the initiative’s plea and offer feedback outside City Hall. But the most telling moment would be a sealed jar each city leader would receive with containing nearly 50 used needles. For those officials who could not make the event, the group hand delivered the jars to their offices. Featured next to the eight jars was a large printout of the campaign’s petition with room underneath for participants and spectators to sign their names.
“They are very emotional,” City Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones-Sanchez told PW, who also vowed to keep the jar on her desk for the remainder of her four-year term as a reminder of the work that needs to be done. “[The drug epidemic] is one of the things that is the most frustrating as an elected official. You watch things spiral out of control, which is where we are now and realize that we have to systematically figure out all the pieces that need to come together for us to demonstrate to folks that we care.”
Claiborne explained that the goal of the jars was not to be “antagonistic,” but “a poignant, visceral, and visual symbol of the urgency of the opioid crisis.” He insisted that the campaign found the needles on sidewalks and on green spaces, not under bridges or by road tracks.
“It is not an unusual thing to actually pick someone off the street and see if they have a pulse, because they overdosed,” he said. “We’ve seen that walking kids to school in the morning.”
“If I’m running around or something, I’ll see needles all over the place,” 13-year-old Tymeka Perkins said. “But if there’s no parent there, then it will just stay there, because I am not allowed to pick them up.” Perkins, who cannot remember a time without the daily presence of drug usage in her neighborhood, gave a jar of needles with a message of her hopes for Kensington to Larry Krasner, the Democrat running for District Attorney.
“I think it’s wonderful to see people from Kensington coming to City Hall, bringing their concerns and bringing a symbol of their concerns to lawmakers,” said Krasner. “You know, we all need to work together to address this, but as with all important movements and all real change, it starts at the grassroots.”
In line with Need a Little Help’s mission, Krasner wants to change the old War on Drugs rhetoric and actions. “Where we go from here is addressing this issue primarily as a public health issue, in terms of people who are drug users, people who are addicted,” said the D.A. candidate who won the Democratic primary in May. “Obviously, the emphasis needs to be on treatment rather than being put in jail cells for $40,000 a year. You can buy a lot of treatment for that kind of money, because treatment actually works, and jail cells don’t when you’re addicted.”
Krasner argued that Big Pharma needs to “take responsibility for its role in” the drug problem. “They need to reverse the practices and the procedures that have induced doctors to subscribe opiates and opioids four times as much, four times as they did ten years ago,” Krasner challenged. “That is why we have people dying at a rate of 13 a day [of drug overdoses] in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and that number is increasing.”