Activist Charito Morales said she does not affiliate with a specific community organization because it distracts from the issues at hand in the Fairhill neighborhood.
Morales is a registered nurse and has been volunteering in the Fairhill community since 1998. She spends some of her time teaching Latino youth at the Providence Center, an education programming organization on North Fifth Street.
Morales came to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico to locate her brother, who suffered from drug abuse. He had come to the mainland for treatment.
She found him in El Campamento, formerly one of the East Coast’s largest open-air drug markets along East Gurney Street and the abandoned Conrail tracks, separating the Kensington and Fairhill neighborhoods. Morales said the encampment used to harbor hundreds of people suffering from drug abuse and chronic homelessness before its clean-out and shutdown in August 2017.
Now, she said, people who are experiencing homelessness and require treatment are spread across multiple encampments along the tracks. Morales has served people living in the drug encampments for decades and believes the city needs to streamline disease prevention, treatment and shelter options. She said the city did “half a job” when it revitalized El Campamento.
How do you work to aid people suffering from drug abuse?
See we have an opioid crisis in the city of Philadelphia, especially in this area. I have to get up — because I want to, not because I have to, and clean, take the needles out of the streets, [before] all these individuals who have organizations and work for the city and state level.
I go with some volunteers and pick up the needles. I buy my own containers. I travel to New York, and New York Health Department provide me Narcan, Naloxone, because the Philadelphia Health Department, if you want it you have to pay $40 for the cheapest one. Or you have to use your health insurance and get it from the pharmacy for $130, the cheapest one, because you don’t get it for free. Even though you are a volunteer who works in the City of Philadelphia, and you have to deal with the situation on a daily basis. I don’t need one Narcan only. Sometimes I use 15 Narcans a day because it’s more than 300, 400, 500, 600 people dealing with the situation.
How has the death of your brother from an overdose influenced your work in El Campamento and in homeless encampments across the city?
It’s how many people looked at my brother — dirty, hungry. I can’t imagine how many times my brother asked for food, or for the phone, or he was cold. I don’t know how many times he asked, “Hey, what he’s saying? I don’t understand [English]. Can you tell me what this guy’s saying to me?” And nobody say like, “Oh, he’s saying this to you.”
I can’t imagine how many times my brother went near a hospital and said, “Hey, can you help me? I feel sick.” Or how many times he tried to apply to the welfare office. Or how many times he tried to go to a police district and say, “Hey, somebody stole my documents.” Or, “I need help, these guys took my papers. I want to call my family.”
I don’t know. I wasn’t here. I don’t know how much was his struggle. But I understand the other people, like my brother, who went through the same struggle because I help them. I wasn’t here to help my brother. Because when I found my brother, he died in my hands. I didn’t have the opportunity to ask him all these questions, and I wasn’t even here to question him. I came here to take him back home [to Puerto Rico]. To provide him love, everything that he needed. But I didn’t have the chance.
Do you think the city is taking the necessary steps to combat the crisis?
I wish the state or the city would work with us. I’m a nurse, but they never sit down and talk to me about, “Hey, Charito. What have you seen down there? How many needles you encounter on a daily basis? How many bodies or, you know, have you seen overdosing? Have you been testing the heroin or the so-called Fentanyl? Or, have you seen people using more opioids? They using crack pipes or are they using the needles?”
Things like that where we can sit down and create a plan and take that plan and say, “Hey, the problem is they’re using bad needles. We have to stop the problem with needle exchange.” Or we have to like, “I give you one needle, you provide me one needle,” and then we can keep control.
Have you been happy with the work of City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez in the Fairhill neighborhood?
With a couple of conversations and supporting each other, Maria realized it was the moment, it was the time to step up. So, she was really speaking really clear and loud. In Harrisburg. She advocate for us in City Hall with the new administration.
I think I went to Mayor Street, Mayor Nutter. They really ignored us. And with Jim Kenney administration, Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, Joanna Otero, Damaris Feliciano and Evelyn Gutierrez, and I’m forgetting a couple of other individuals, we united the voice. Jessie Alejandro-Cruz, Asteria Vives and I, we were focusing on what we needed here as an advocate and them being in the office in the city, different positions.
Us women, yay. So, us as Latinas who live and work here. We kind of feel, “Hey, we feel this way. We’ve been shunned for so many years in different administrations. This is the moment, this is the time. What do you got?”
What was the impact of the revitalization of El Campamento, and why do you believe the city did a “half-job?”
A lot of organizations were there. A lot of city organizations for the first time worked together without killing each other. I said, perfect. This is awesome, communication works. Perfect. So I was the person who walked all these organizations down to the tracks.
We went down there, a lot of individuals refused to go to the detox or to a rehab facility. Some of them, like 70, said yes. They was tired. It was time for them to go. Perfect. But the first day, 40 people agreed to go. I was thrilled. I said, “Thank you, God. Yes, this is a good, good day.”
You know, this never happened in so many years. Forty people. That’s a good number. Out of the 40 people, 32 will be turned in next day out of the hospital. Guess what? They sent them to Episcopal Hospital. They made them wait like dogs, like animals while doing drugs. They didn’t have beds available. They didn’t even provide them a Tylenol.
They should’ve gone without waiting — express. No questions asked. Because that was in order. Because it was a situation. They didn’t explain to none of these other city agencies. Out of the 40, 32 was getting suboxone or methadone. So once you’ve taken an order like that from a doctor, you’re not allowed to go to detox because this is a second way of detoxing your body. But you didn’t say that.
What is the stigma surrounding the Fairhill community because of the drug encampments?
People call it Killadelphia. People call it Trashadelphia. People call it Badlands. People call it Zombieland. People are calling Kensington Prostituteland. We have so many titles. But we have people like me, that we do community gardens. People like my co-workers and people who live in this community, that we clean. We provide food. It’s everybody. It’s more than that. We are cleaning. We are taking ownership of the community.
We don’t like labels. Labels, you put the labels because you haven’t got up out of your sofa, or out of your TV, or out of your daily living style. Don’t say nothing negative. Just get up out of your way and do something for your community because maybe you don’t live in this neighborhood, but you don’t know, your family member [might]. Or you don’t know, maybe in the future, your son, your daughter or somebody from your family is going to come and live in this community.
Do something now. We need volunteers. We need people with kindness, with a heart, with commitment, to help us take ownership and take care of this community.
-Text and video by Greta Anderson and Brianna Baker.