Judy Moore is a librarian at the McPherson Square Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, where she has worked for 28 years. The library gained national attention this spring for regularly administering Narcan to overdose victims. Moore talked with PPR as part of our series on the Philadelphia Opioid Crisis. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Penn Political Review: Being here for almost 30 years, how have you seen this neighborhood change?
Judy Moore: I mean, there have always been drugs in this neighborhood to some extent. This has been called Needle Park since before I started working here. And it had kind of calmed down, but it’s just gone crazy the last year or two years. We are seeing what we call the ‘drug tourists’ which we never saw before. What used to happen is just neighborhood people or people would come to the neighborhood and maybe buy their drugs here but not try to live here, not like they are now. When I started working here this was a working-class neighborhood. Most of the people had jobs then. Now there’s a lot more welfare.
PPR: So how have you encountered the drug problem specifically at the library?
JM: Well last summer— even a little bit before that— we started noticing people trying to live in the park. We started noticing middle-class suburban kids coming here, that was new to us. People from the Main Line, from New Jersey and then it just got more and more spread out. We started seeing people from Nebraska, Wyoming, I mean like- coming in from other states. We never saw that before. and we also started seeing more overdoses. We have not had an overdose inside the library in over a year. But that’s because we took measures. But outside, it’s crazy.
PPR: At its worst, how many overdoses were you seeing per week?
JM: Outside, it depends on what’s going on. They cut the drugs and they don’t know exactly they put in the drugs, like fentanyl, and the elephant tranquilizer— and so sometimes you’ll get a whole bunch of overdoses at one time because of a batch of bad drugs. So one particular week Chera (another librarian) [administered Narcan to] like five people.
Right after Thanksgiving there were a whole lot of overdoses. Kids will go home just a couple days and their tolerance is less, and then they’ll come back and take what they normally took and then they’ll overdose because they’ve lost their tolerance. That was the week there were 30 deaths or something. We could go weeks without anything happening and then have a week with a bunch of deaths like that.
The police have been in the park with their van for about 6 weeks now so we haven’t had to run out and Narcan anybody— they’re doing it, so we’re happy for that. It’s very very different here now than it was before the police were in the park. We still have some trash laying around, but at least we don’t have people laying around.
PPR: When did you first get the Narcan training?
JM: We first got the training in January after a lot of us asking. And nobody was against us getting it, but nobody wanted to be the one to say yes.
And a lot of people don’t understand Narcan— man people think we’re injecting people, and we’re not, it’s a spray. Many people think that if we give it to the wrong person we could kill someone, but it turns out that you can’t hurt anybody with it. The only problem is Narcan doesn’t work as well on some of the newer drugs: fentanyl; that elephant tranquilizer; other things like that where they’re upping the strength of the drug. Sometimes we’ve had to use two or three [Narcan] doses on a person because one wasn’t working.
PPR: Do you think the police presence is helping with the drug problem, and also in any other ways?
JM: Well, you know it’s making things safer for the kids, and that’s our whole point. They’re gonna be someplace. If you chase them out of the park, they’re going to go someplace else. If you say “you can’t do that here” they’re not going to say “well okay, we won’t do it then.” Obviously they’re going to do it— they’re addicted. But we do have to make this park safe for the kids. And it’s [the drug use has] been pushed other places— they were in a church, they were under the Contrail bridges, they’ve been at other parks. But it’s been better here, it’s been better for the kids, there aren’t as many needles in the park. We’ve had the opportunity to do more activities with the kids now because it’s safer- they’re not going to see someone shooting themselves in the neck or between the toes.
PPR: There was a period in the spring where there was just so much media coverage. Do you think that coverage was fair? Helpful?
JM: Yeah— Last year we were trying to get attention. And once we got to know Mike Newall (the Inquirer reporter), it just took off. It got kinda crazy, but there were things that the city used to say “oh yeah, oh yeah, we’ll get to it.” And as soon as they knew there was this guy covering everything, they started doing all things they had talked about doing.
PPR: How do you feel about the opinion that some community members have expressed that words like “hellscape” are not fair?
JM: A lot of people also don’t want the park called “Needle Park”. Because there are a lot of good things happening here too, and they don’t want the only thing that they’re known for to be the drug problem. You know, kids are growing up here, people are living their lives here, and making a good life here as far as they can— they’re trying really hard. So people don’t like to only be known for that,
PPR: What do you think a student like me should know about this, and what is the best way we can help with this problem and the community in general?
JM: I feel like everyone should get Narcan training— you just never know when you can use it. It’s the new CPR, and it’s not just in Kensington. Also, if you have insurance for prescriptions, you can go into a drugstore and pick up Narcan (if your drugstore is in the know). There’s a standing order from the state physician general. You might have to pay your co-pay, but otherwise it’s covered by your insurance. I would hate to have someone die because I couldn’t give them Narcan.
Students could also volunteer at Prevention Point or other clinics because users and non-users have medical needs. We’d love to have students volunteer to tutor kids with homework.
PPR: Are there any opportunities for that here at the library?
JM: We have several after school programs if people want to volunteer for them. We have a guy come in and run an program called “maker jawn” . He puts out STEM activities and lets them make what they want to make. He’s always swamped, so we could use help there. Homework help is always needed, especially from someone who is bilingual. Most of our kids speak English but lots of parents speak Spanish, so it’s hard for them to help kids with school.
PPR: Anything else you’d like to add?
We’d really made a lot of progress and all of a sudden we started getting all of these drug tourists. And so they [some Kensington residents] resent it, which is understandable. Some (in the neighborhood) will say “We should just let them die. It’s useless. Don’t Narcan them, we should let them die and that will solve the problem.” It’s horrible, but that’s their anger coming out.
The elephant in the room is that these are all white people coming in and this is a Hispanic and Black neighborhood. And you know, there’s a certain amount of white privilege that addicts sometimes display. People will come into the library and expect things or have an “I deserve things” attitude.
There have been heroin addicts for years. Now all of a sudden it’s white kids and now we’re talking about it. But, we do need to talk about it now because it’s so much worse than before. I’m sure you’ve heard the statistics of how many people die and how every year it gets worse and worse…
We went to a meeting down at Prevention point maybe two weeks ago and there was such a — not tension, but— there were the people from Bucks county, and then there were the people from here. And the difference.. wow. It was just a little surreal when the Bucks county people would get up and go “Well we’re gonna have a march from Dauphin up to Allegheny (streets) for awareness!” and I’m thinking, you do not need to raise awareness here (laughs). If you want to have an awareness march, you go march in the suburbs out there. They’re trying, but their idea of trying is different than our idea of trying.
And then there is a little bit of a tension between the mothers’ groups that come in from the different counties wanting to feed the addicts. And I get that, because they’ve had kids here, but the neighborhood people complain that it just attracts them. They were feeding people in the park here, and the police told them not to do that here anymore because it brings the users to come here. They gave them an alternative spot, though, to give out food and hygiene products and clothing and all that. And of course they want to, because they’ve lost a kid.
But then I get why we would want to make this the oasis for the kids, and so anything that would bring the users into the park is not what we want. I thought that what the police decided was a good idea, to hold it at an alternative spot. So that they can still do that, but they can’t do it where the kids are. That’s always my bottom line, I’m on the kids’ side. But there are all these complications to think about that don’t appear on the surface of things If you do this then that happens, and you want to help these people but then that’s not good for those people…
Everybody wants to clean up that Gurney street, but then you’ve got to do something for them. You can’t just say “go away” because they’ve got to go somewhere. There are plans to have counselors there when they do get them out, but how many of the users will accept the help, you don’t know…
One time Chera gave Narcan to a guy while a kid was out here watching. I said “I’m sorry you had to see that.” She said “Oh I seen that before.” Like, so blasé. She’s like 10. The woman from NBC was so shaken up, but this little girl didn’t care, she’d seen it before…
There were kids playing out here in the snow one day and I said “oh, be careful of the needles”. they said “we know, Miss Judy.” It’s good that they know it, but it’s horrible that they have to…
And then there’s this whole thing about the safe injection sites. at first you hear about it and you’re like what? But then you think about it — it would get it out of public so that the kids don’t see it, and it would be a safer place, so if they did overdose there’s someone right there. There’d be counselors there to help them get treatment if they chose. The only thing about that is that people might think “out of sight out of mind”, that the crisis is over because they’re not seeing it.
PPR: Thank you so much.