Chris Marshall is a former addict and former Executive Director of Last Stop Sobriety, a recovery support center on Kensington Avenue. Marshall talked with PPR as part of our series on the Philadelphia Opioid Crisis. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Penn Political Review: Why are you here in Kensington?
Chris Marshall: It’s not about making money. We don’t charge people to come here, no intake fees, and we don’t charge people get high fines like some places do. We don’t believe in that man. We charge $100 a week, and if you ain’t got no money don’t worry about it. When you get a job, or when a rich uncle dies, or your lottery ticket hits, pay it back then. When you find a little work, give us half of what you make and keep the other half until your rents caught up, and if it’s caught up, hang on to all your bread.
It’s about just giving somebody an option, because most of the people here have burned out all their bridges with insurance, they can’t get funded anywhere, they’re are homeless. So come on here man, come on here.
I’d rather see you not on welfare. We’re one of the only places around the city that tells you don’t get on welfare, you know what I mean? men are supposed to take care of themselves, women are supposed to take care of themselves, get a job, and if you’re able to do it, why depend on a system to take care of you? We do something really unique. we don’t force people out to IOP, pimp them out to get cash, you know what I mean?
PPR: What’s an IOP?
CM: Intensive outpatient program. Unfortunately, some IOP programs want to reimburse you for the people that you’re sending, and we don’t play with that. That’s blood money, giving people services that they don’t need, just to get kickbacks? That’s f—— up.
PPR: What was your trajectory – did you always live here in Kensington?
CM: I was in Northeast Philly kid, born and raised in the greater northeast. I didn’t know nothing about heroin. So one day while working as an adult I hurt my back, and my grandmother, out of her kindness, said ‘Here Chris, take one of these Percocets. They’ll make you feel better.’ Now she had no idea what she was doing. She had no idea that her grandson was going to be a dope freak. She was just trying to help me out. I said ‘Oh, that makes me feel a lot better, thank you!’ And she was like ‘Okay, hold on to 10 of these in case you ever need them.’
Then a couple weeks later I hurt my back again, and I was like ‘I don’t think one’s going to help. Let me take two.’ And I took two and I’m like ‘Ooh, what is this? This is a very cool feeling. I should have felt like this my whole life!’ Something clicked in my brain the moment I took two Percocets that said ‘I have arrived – this is how I need to feel the rest of my life.’ and later on that night I was like ‘Well if two feels that good, I wonder what 3 feels like.’ Whew – there went my addiction.
From Percocets- I didn’t learn about heroin until I went to detox. Everybody was in there for heroin and I was there for pills, and they looked at me like I was crazy. The day I actually got out of detox for my prescription pill problem was the day I shot my first bag of heroin.
And let me tell you I didn’t get it at first. I wasn’t one of those people that got treatment and stayed sober. like a lot of other people, I had to keep coming back and keep coming back. in fact, I came to Last Stop Program when technically I think this was my 5th time. the first four times I couldn’t get more than a couple weeks sober. But something changed – I had some friends telling me about what I was doing to myself, that I was living like an animal, living under a bridge, you know, Federal Prison. All that kind of stuff man. and something clicked and when I stayed here the last time, I stayed. And I haven’t been drunk or high since.
PPR: This problem has been here for awhile, but it has gotten a lot of media attention this year. How do you feel about that?
CM: One thing is the neighborhoods are improving, which is a good thing. The drug dealers are getting pushed out, but they’re going somewhere else. They’re going further down Frankford Avenue end of the Frankford section. So it’s not really eliminating the problem, it’s just eliminating it from here.
Another thing is with the attention, I’ve heard of the wrong people getting targeted and stuff like that. But let me tell you the 26th Police District here is f—– fantastic. We work together closely with them. But I remember as an addict walking down the street and having a cop hop out of the cop car, whack me in the knee with the baton, and get back in the car and not say a f—– word to me. Now they’re trying to focus on helping addicts. And the way they’re doing that is by trying to force them off the train tracks, and it’s just relocating the problem again… that’s why I want to be available. I want those guys.
The other bad thing I’ve seen about the national attention is heroin tourism. You have people flocking in from everywhere to get Philadelphia heroin. They hear it’s got carfentanil, and it’s like playing Russian roulette. The carfentanil so potent… a dose the size of a grain of salt is enough to kill a human being that does not have a tolerance.
And these guys that are mixing these drugs, they’re not scientists, they’re not chemists. They’re mixing this sh*t up in their basements with business cards and playing cards, and if you get one or two extra grains in your bag you’re done for. But to an addict, that’s marketing. They think “Joe couldn’t handle is dope, but I can! Let me go there to the corner he just copped off of.’
PPR: What should the plan to fix this crisis include?
CM: I don’t know what the right answer is. A lot of homeless addicts are homeless because they choose to be. It’s easier to do your dirt out on the streets at the same place where you’re getting your drugs from. They don’t have to answer the mother or father, to their wives, husbands, or kids. I know when I was homeless, it was because of choice. I stayed there and I was comfortable there.
Right now it’s going to be about changing people’s hearts and minds. Do we do criminal things as addicts? Yes, but to support the addiction. Most addicts are not bad people. They’re looking for love- I know I was. And they seem to find it in that drink or drug, and that’s the way it’s been for years ever since people have been smoking opium. They fall in love with it, and it grabs you by the balls, and you get stuck. There’s people they came here from Bucks County, from other states just to get a dose of dope and they’re like ‘Oh my God this is awesome – I am not leaving!’ So there’s no right answer man.
PPR: Why don’t some people get help?
CM: People are full of fear, and people enjoy being high. We just decide to put it down when the consequences get bigger than the short term rewards. Listen, if I could get high and maintain a job and have my family love me and not be a criminal, I might be getting high right now. But I’m not that dude. And a lot of the people out on the streets of Kensington Avenue aren’t them people, so their job is to get high. That’s what they’ve chalked it up to.
There’s a lot of hopelessness and desperation. ‘Why even take this service because somebody else who really wants it could have it?’ That’s what goes through an addict’s mind, and that’s what went through my mind. ‘I don’t want to be dope sick, and who am I kidding, I’m just gonna be high in another month or so anyway, so why waste these people’s time.’
PPR: How much does it cost to sustain an addiction?
CM: when I was committing crimes to put me in federal prison, I was spending $700 a day minimum on dope. My tolerance one up real quick from like a or one or two bag a day habit – $10 or $20 – to shooting a bundle at a time which costs about $140, to doing that about 6 or 7 times a day. if you have the means to do it, the sky’s the limit if it doesn’t kill you. You’ll just be more tolerant and more tolerant. I used to be asked to test drugs, because of how they give out samples, like ‘Do this bag, do it right here and tell me what you think of it,’ so the guy knows the quality of the stuff he’s selling. Then they’d be like ‘I’m not asking you anymore because you’re rating all my stuff as garbage.’ But that’s when I could put 10, 12, 14 bags of my arm at one time. So it could be as little as $10, $15, $20, up to $1,000 man.
PPR: Per day?
CM: Per day. It’s unfortunate because there’s a lot of ladies working the Ave right now hopping in and out of cars that are doing as much as they can as long as they can continue to make money. In a lot of these women are losing their lives right now. It sucks- it’s harder to help females out then it is men because they have natural assets that they can continue to exploit to get money, where many men wouldn’t go that Avenue. they resort to like stealing or something else, robberies. But for the women it’s tough man. They’re going through at the worst. If they hop out of somebody’s car, just do the math if somebody pops out of a car with $50 and how many times they can do that in a day, and they just keep doing that. It’s a d*mn shame.
PPR: What can Penn as an institution do to help this epidemic?
CM: What I would do if I had to send somebody to the University of Penn, I would tell them to fake a psychiatric emergency so they can get into the hospital and when they’re there, tell somebody that they have an addiction problem and would rather kill themselves than continue to be high. Unfortunately I have to play these kinds of games to get people help because it’s not there. and it’s not there because the funding isn’t there. It’s probably going to get more funded now, but people want to get paid for their services. Temple won’t be around if people don’t pay their medical bills. But how am I going to get a homeless addict with no insurance, with no ID, who I don’t know if he’s even giving me his real name to get him to pay a bill? it’s not going to happen. That’s the realism of it.