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Canvassers in Philadelphia reach out to residents to warn about overdose rates


Thousands of Americans are still dying of drug overdoses, especially from synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and many deaths are happening inside homes. In Philadelphia, city workers are taking a new approach to try to prevent these fatal outcomes. They are going door-to-door. Nicole Leonard of member station WHYY has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. If I can have everybody's attention.

NICOLE LEONARD, BYLINE: We're in the parking lot of a Dunkin' Donuts in North Philly. This is today's meetup spot for a group of city canvassers who are all dressed in matching royal blue polos. We split off and head toward a block of row homes across the street. We pass by fast food restaurants, a bank and a daycare center.


LEONARD: Outreach worker Marsella Elie knocks on a door right next to a busy auto body shop.

MARSELLA ELIE: Hello, sir. How are you doing today? OK. Hold on two seconds. My name is Marsella. I'm working with the city. You heard about the overdose that's going around in the neighborhood, right?

LEONARD: Elie hands over booklets and guides on overdose awareness and local addiction treatment programs. She holds up a box of Narcan, a brand of the opioid overdose reversal medication naloxone.

ELIE: So basically what we is trying to do is we're trying to get this into everybody household. Have you ever heard of this before?

LEONARD: Everyone who answers the door today will be offered local education materials, fentanyl test strips and Narcan. The goal of Philadelphia's massive canvassing project is to knock on more than 100,000 doors in overdose hotspots. These are ZIP codes with rising rates of overdose deaths, many in Black and brown neighborhoods. Elie says many people are surprised to hear about overdose deaths in areas that don't appear in the headlines about the addiction epidemic.

ELIE: It's around. This is - people be quiet about it 'cause they don't want you to know how their family members died. So it's really out here, and people need to be aware of that.

LEONARD: A record 1,413 people died in Philly in 2022 from drug overdoses, according to city data. Deaths were up 20% among Black residents from the year before, and many happened in private residences. Keli McLoyd of the city's Opioid Response Unit says historically, Black and brown people have been targeted by the war on drugs. They continue to make up a disproportionate number of drug arrests and reports to child protective services.

KELI MCLOYD: Because of that, it's very clear why Black or brown people might be hesitant to raise their hand and say I'm a person who uses drugs. I need these resources.

LEONARD: Daliah Heller says this canvassing method of expanding access to a life-saving drug could be one of the most effective tactics she's ever seen in her 25 plus years of working in harm reduction. Heller is the vice president of drug use initiatives at Vital Strategies, a public health organization working with local governments in seven states to address the opioid epidemic.

DALIAH HELLER: There's something intensely personal about a human engagement and somebody knocking at your door to talk about drug use and overdose risk and that there is something that can be done, I think is really powerful.

LEONARD: Heller hopes the door knocking and canvassing will encourage more conversations between family and friends about drug use.

HELLER: It's very emotional, right? Because what you're saying is, I wish you weren't using. I wish you weren't using, but you are, and I don't want you to die.

LEONARD: North Philadelphia resident Katherine Camacho is just coming out of her garage when city canvassers approach her on the sidewalk. She knows about the problem in her community and eagerly accepts the Narcan.

KATHERINE CAMACHO: I will carry this with me because like I said, sometimes you're in the street driving somewhere, and you can save a life. And if you don't have these things, it's harder to do so, right?

LEONARD: Camacho says she sees how the opioid crisis has caused suffering in her neighborhood and across the city and believes God is putting people on the ground to help. She wants to be among them.

For NPR News, I'm Nicole Leonard in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nicole Leonard