This is the third story in a series about the open-air drug market in Kensington. Read the first and second parts.
PHILADELPHIA – Opioid overdose kits are common sights in Kensington. They hang from telephone poles and bridge supports all over the northeast Philadelphia neighborhood, while some good Samaritans keep them in their homes or glove compartments.
And it’s not without good reason. Take a stroll around its streets — careful not to step on heroin syringes littering the ground — and you’ll soon see an addict passed out and sprawled across the sidewalk.
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Inside the kit, you’ll find naloxone, a single-use nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose. It’s commonly referred to by its brand name, Narcan.
But heroin users fear the life-saving drug, according to Frank Rodriguez, an addict-turned-activist. It’s not that they’re afraid of overdosing — it’s that they dread naloxone’s effects.
"Once they get Narcan in their system, it puts them in immediate withdrawal," Rodriguez told Fox News. "They have to get high again to not feel like they're dying."
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"It's such a crazy cycle," he said.
Withdrawals from opioids like heroin and fentanyl are famously miserable and come with a litany of symptoms, including fever, nausea and entire-body muscle aches.
It’s difficult to track how frequently naloxone is administered since it’s used by a variety of government agencies, medical personnel and civilians. The Philadelphia Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services administered naloxone nearly 19,600 times between 2014 and 2019, the most recent full year with data available, according to city data.
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Yet there were still more than 5,700 unintentional overdose deaths over the same period, Department of Public Health data show.
Rodriguez spent years dealing drugs in Kensington before he became a heroin addict himself. After more than a decade of abuse, Rodriguez left Philadelphia and got sober. He still returns to the neighborhood — known as an open-air drug market — to give free haircuts to addicts and post their testimonials to his YouTube channel, "Morals over Money."
"A couple things that I always keep that I make sure I get out and have accessible as soon as I get to the city," Rodriguez said, opening his glove compartment. In it were rubber gloves and several doses of naloxone.
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"This saved my life," he said while holding up Narcan.
For him, an overdose was a turning point, a wake-up call that he needed to take sobriety seriously and stay clean. It led him to rehab, where he sat in the front row taking notes.
That’s why he makes it a point to check on addicts passed across Kensington, to make sure they’re not overdosing. As incentive for them to wake up, he warns them that the police will be forced to administer naloxone.
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"Yo," Rodriguez said over and over to man slumped over the side of his wheelchair. The addict's arms dangled along the right wheel. His face was pointed downward, and his bangs draped out like vines from his sweatshirt hood pulled over his head.
Rodriguez repeatedly tapped his shoulder.
"Get up. Hear me?"
The man slowly lifted his left arm, but remained largely unresponsive.
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"You gotta sit up, man. They gonna Narcan you if they see you like that."
Eventually, the addict stirred, but still didn’t move much.
"I was tapping him hard, and he was dozed off right through it," Rodriguez told Fox News, noting that he at first thought the man would need naloxone. "His hands were all swollen, so he’s been like that for a little while."
But even if he wasn’t overdosing, Rodriguez identified another danger. The addict’s wheelchair was on a slight decline and pointed toward a street.
"He could easily roll straight into traffic," he said.
And as beneficial as it is to have naloxone in overdose kits available throughout Kensington, it’s not foolproof.
"The Narcan is going to wear off in 15 minutes so they can potentially end up overdosing off the same dose that they just got saved from," Rodriguez said. "That's a common thing that happens."
To watch Rodriguez share more details about naloxone in Kensington, click here.