On front lines of the opioid epidemic, these Narcan street warriors prevent overdose deaths

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On front lines of the opioid epidemic, these Narcan street warriors prevent overdose deaths:-I’m in Camden, New Jersey. People who live and work in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood know how to save lives; she’s done it more than 2,200 times. A small New Testament that she always has with her helps her keep track of each save. She writes down the day, time, and a few other details.

On front lines of the opioid epidemic, these Narcan street warriors prevent overdose deaths

“I call them “Sunshine” because calling them “addict,” “junkie,” or “zombie” would be rude.” That’s not human. “It makes people feel bad about themselves,” said Pichardo, who came to Camden on a cold January day to show kindness and teach people how to give Narcan.

Pichardo is kind of like Superman because he works with trained doctors, police, and social workers to fight the opioid crisis. He may have saved thousands of people across the U.S. from fatal overdoses.

A new RAND study found that over 40% of Americans know someone who died from taking too much of a drug. So far in 2024, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has found and taken away more than 11.7 million fentanyl pills. The government found more than 78.4 million pills with fentanyl in them and almost 12 pounds of fentanyl powder in 2023. That’s more than 388.8 million lethal doses in a country with 335 million people.

RAND’s study said that more than 109,000 people died in the U.S. in 2022 from drug overdoses, and that number has grown to more than 1.1 million since 2000.

Pichardo sees the task as his own. “Why write them down?” she was asked. “It helps me remember them and see them as people.” It can be scary after a while, so you try to remember that. But I still want to be able to say, “I saved them.””

From a survivor to a savior on Philadelphia’s streets

Pictured has been through a lot. In 1994, a man who used to date her killed her boyfriend and almost killed her too. Her twin sister killed herself, and her brother was killed in 2012, but the murder case has still not been solved.

Pichardo now leads Operation Save Our City. Before that, he worked for a number of nonprofits, such as Prevention Point, which provides health care and social services in Kensington, Ceasefire PA, a group that fights for gun control, and as a trauma champion at Temple University Hospital.

Recently, the group opened a drop-in center for homeless people. There, they can get their mail and messages, call their friends and family, and take a Narcan kit with them. Operation Save Our City supports the idea of harm reduction, which means keeping people from overdosing or getting sick by giving them clean needles, condoms, Narcan, and clean water.

She says she has saved over 2,245 people. Pichardo is 46 years old.

Shawn Westfahl, overdose prevention and harm reduction coordinator for Prevention Point, said, “She’s been doing this for a long time, and she’s from the neighborhood.” Last year, 97,000 Narcan kits were given out by Prevention Point. “She’s an amazing person.”

Regrettably, not all Narcan administrations work. Pichardo thought of a man who drowned in the train. As Pichardo tried to help him, commuters walked right over him and some even said mean things about his drug use. She got help from a teenage girl who knew how to do CPR. As he died, they both held his hand, making a bond with him in his last moments.

“If I don’t see them for a while, I like to think they went home,” she stated. “It’s my job to keep them alive so they can go home.” “All I want is for them to take a breath.”

On front lines of the opioid epidemic, these Narcan street warriors prevent overdose deaths

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Boston’s Methadone Mile is his ‘Miracle Mile’

Joshua De La Rosa doesn’t keep count of how many lives he’s saved, but he has offered a lot of people a second chance.

“At least one hundred,” the officer from the Boston Police Department told USA TODAY. “Most likely 200. There may be more. Two to three people a day died during the pandemic, which was pretty bad.

De La Rosa was an outreach cop whose job it was to walk around Boston’s Methadone Mile, a place where homeless people sleep and drugs are used openly. It wasn’t his job to arrest people, but to help them. Section 35 of the Massachusetts law lets people with drug use disorders be committed against their will, so De La Rosa was sometimes asked to pick up people with warrants.

“I’d apologize and tell them, ‘I care about you,'” he stated. “I might tell them, ‘You weren’t meant to be a drug addict.'” I don’t think that’s your holy name. That makes them cry most of the time. They understand that this is not what they wanted to do as adults.

“They’d call me every name you can think of that first day,” he stated. “But after a week, they’d say sorry and thank me.” So many people became my friends. The whole thing has been so beautiful.

De La Rosa, who is a powerful Christian, remembers a man that he helped get off the streets and into treatment. He was told that he was getting better, but he saw him again on the streets. The man told him he was fine, but “something didn’t sit right with me.”

When De La Rosa wasn’t working, he had his phone set to “do not disturb.” After some time, he saw two desperate texts from the man. De La Rosa asked cops who were still in the area to look for him even though he wasn’t assigned to that area anymore.

It was in the hallway of a building that they found him. That one hurt a lot.”

He remembered a pretty young woman from a good family who turned to sex work to pay for her drug habit. Her parents were in so much pain that they came looking for her. De La Rosa worked with her family to get her committed.

“She ran away from me and told me she hated me,” he remembered. But after a few months, she and her mother came to see me. She thanked me, and now she’s been sober for almost five years and is doing great.

It’s possible for people to find a better life, even in a place like Methadone Mile, said the father of five.

“I like to call it Miracle Mile,” De La Rosa, who is now a reporter, said.

Helping in DC and San Francisco: ‘A human being is a human being’

HIPS is a Washington, D.C.-based group that helps sex workers, transgender people, homeless people, and people with substance use disorder by reducing harm and providing health care and other services. Dana McCollough is the manager of medication-assisted treatment there.

Since its start in 1993, HIPS has given away 11,000 naloxone kits and taught 3,000 people how to reverse an overdose.

She doesn’t know how many deaths she’s stopped, but she is sure it’s “definitely more than 100.”

No matter what flaws they have, McCollough said, “a person is a person.” “I go through ups and downs, but I try to move on to the next hour or the next day, so I can help the next person.”

Amber Sheldon has stopped dozens of deaths since she started volunteering with GLIDE in San Francisco in 2017. A year later, she became a paid employee. She really wants to reduce harm, and she and her team say they see a lot of homeless people in the Tenderloin neighborhood of the city.

“We give out Narcan like hotcakes,” she said, adding that they also give out fentanyl test strips and teach people how to reverse an overdose.

A woman came into GLIDE’s office looking for her son, who had been on the streets because of his drug use. She saved a young man from overdosing later that same day. “When he came to, he started crying and apologizing, and he asked to call his mother,” the woman who had come looking for him the day before.

“The War on Drugs is a war on people,” she stated. It’s possible that harm reduction is controversial, but Sheldon doesn’t think it should be: “Access to harm reduction gives people a chance for change, positive change not just in one person but in their families.” We do this to help the whole person and the whole society.

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