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Librarians In Philadelphia Train To Thwart Drug Overdoses


McPherson Square Park, which is north of downtown Philadelphia, has become known as Needle Park. It's become what amounts to a gathering spot for drug users. And as this nation's opioid crisis has exploded, the staff at the public library in the center of the park have become first responders. Mike Newall is a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and last week he wrote about a new assignment for librarians - they help overdose victims. Chera Kowalski is a librarian there at the McPherson Square branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. They both join us now from member station WHYY.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MIKE NEWALL: Thank you, Scott.


SIMON: Well, Mike, first tell us a bit about this neighborhood.

NEWALL: Well, it's a neighborhood that has been long underserved and long suffering with deep poverty, with drugs. The park there is right now in the center of the city's opioid epidemic. And we don't want to have a reputation for having the purest and cheapest heroin, but sadly, I think we do.

SIMON: Chera Kowalski, what's it like in the library? What do you see?

KOWALSKI: Well, aside from having lots of community members come in - children, teens and families - this past week we have had four overdoses that I'm aware of that happened right out front of the library. As the warm weather increases, it becomes a daily occurrence.

SIMON: And I gather the librarians there have been obliged to become involved in a way that - well, become involved in a way librarians aren't usually asked to become involved.

KOWALSKI: The way I've always thought of libraries are a responsive space that responds to the community needs. And in the situation that we're in one of the needs are we have to help people who may be engaging in behaviors not many are comfortable with. And when someone's overdosing, that's a need. And utilizing Narcan, it gives them a second chance.

SIMON: I hope you don't mind me asking, but I understand you know about addiction personally.

KOWALSKI: Yes. Both of my parents have been in recovery for over 20 years now.

SIMON: That's - that takes a lot of courage, doesn't it?

KOWALSKI: Yes. They have a strength that, like, the word - I can't describe. To see them just keep trying has been amazing and inspiring. And so I take that and some of the experience I had growing up, and I just want to be a supportive person inside the library and the community in all.

SIMON: Mike Newall, what is - what you've witnessed there, what does that say about what's happened in so many places in our country with the opioid crisis?

NEWALL: Well, it's - as I said, Kensington has long been a neighborhood that's been dealing with drug issues and poverty issues. And now you're seeing kids out there who are coming from North Carolina and South Carolina, from all over the country who are out there on that lawn. It's a glimpse into the reach of the crisis but also just the depth of it right now.

I mean, I've had the chance to visit Chera four times at the library, and three times on those visits she's helped or saved someone's life. And it's going to be a long summer. And I don't - I hope that the front line of this defense isn't Chera running from behind the library desk. I know she will, but I hope that the city stands up and does what it needs to do right now.

SIMON: In your mind, Mr. Newall and Chera Kowalski, what should the city, the state, the country do?

KOWALSKI: I really believe we need to dramatically change the way we treat addiction. We need to continue to destigmatize mental health and addiction as well. I think what we can do right now is to have more people be willing to train themselves on Narcan because it really is a lifesaving tool.

NEWALL: In the meantime, I mean, there's an opportunity for the city to get outreach workers there on a daily basis - to talk to these folks, to see if they can pull any of them inside and get them into treatment. And, I mean, there's a national opioid crisis. There's a epidemic in Philadelphia. But there's - you know, our catastrophe is a crisis right now on that lawn.

SIMON: Mike Newall of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chera Kowalski, a librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia, thank you both for being with us.

KOWALSKI: Thank you.

NEWALL: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And tomorrow, on Weekend Edition Sunday, Mayor James Brainard of Carmel, Ind., believes that he and other mayors can meet the goals of the Paris Accord at the local level. In Carmel, Mayor Brainard has taken...

JAMES BRAINARD: A city that was designed for cars and turning it into a walkable city so that the average driver is in his car maybe a few minutes a day as opposed to the U.S. average of two hours or a hundred miles.

SIMON: A city's effort to combat climate change tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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