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Staten Island Comes To Terms With Heroin Epidemic

TYLER: Staten Island is in the middle of a heroin epidemic. The borough has the most opiate deaths per capita in the city – twice Manhattan’s rate.

GREGOIRE: Most of these fatalities are happening on the island’s more prosperous South Shore. Joe Sykes reports on how Staten Islanders are searching for ways to come to terms with the problem.


SYKES: It’s on the Staten Island Ferry

Up Staten Island Ferry

you first notice all might not be well in New York’s least populated borough. Among advertisements for Italian restaurants and golf resorts there are public service posters which portray empty beer bottles and boxes of pills. The tagline: “Heroin starts here.”

Clare Porcello says that’s how her son Joey got addicted.

Clare: This is his graduation picture. That’s when he started, when he first took that pill that’s when he wasn’t himself anymore.

He started using. First pills, usually the painkiller oxycontin, then onto heroin. His mother says the drugs changed him.

Clare: It made him a totally different person. He never smiled, it just changed him, his whole personality…wasn’t nice anymore, was angry at everyone.

Joey died in the summer of 2013 of a heroin overdose. And every couple of weeks there’s another obituary like Joey’s in the pages of the Staten Island Advance.

The Porcellos are from the South Shore. It’s the land of pizza parlors and nail salons; republican politics and auto repair shops.  But now it’s also heroin’s new home. In 2014 The Porcellos neighborhood had the second highest rate of overdose deaths in the whole of the New York City area.

Heroin took off on Staten Island a year and a half ago after New York State made it tougher for addicts to get prescription drugs by shopping for a new doctor.

Rob Stroh is one of those addicts and was Joey’s best friend. He says, between the new laws and the falling street price of heroin, it just doesn’t make sense anymore to go looking for pills.

Rob Stroh: In the last two years it just got ridiculous. One 10 dollar bag of heroin is stronger than a 25 dollar pill, so what are kids gonna wanna do.

When Joey died Stroh decided to try and come off drugs.

Rob Stroh: You’re skins crawlin, you’re hot you’re cold, you’re clammy, you can’t go to the bathroom right, you’re all backed up. And I had to go through that during Joey’s wake, the funeral and all that.

He lasted about 7 months before relapsing. He says it’s such a tight-knit community here, it’s hard to stay clean.

Rob Stroh: When that’s all you know and those are all the people you’re comfortable with and those are all the people you love and they got love for you, it’s hard because it’s everywhere and they’re everywhere. (00.14)

The same dynamic on the South Shore that makes it hard for addicts to kick the drugs makes it hard for parents to talk about them. And that’s where Alicia Palermo Reddy comes in.

Alicia: Parents were afraid, if the mother goes to a gym, she didn’t want anybody knowing their child was a drug addict. Just now I’m trying to make it aware and make these parents realise, you’re not alone, it’s in every family, it could be my son. (00.16)

Like most families here, she’s had firsthand experience. She has two nephews who’ve suffered from addiction. So she started informal meetings in the yard of her house a couple of years ago. They were small….10, maybe 20 mothers. Then people started to talk.

Up Car Ambi:

Alicia:( Use indicator here I think) This is our Lady the Star of the sea Church. This is the school here and that’s the auditorium where we hold the meetings.

Her yard was no longer big enough, so she moved the location to the school. Now they meet monthly. She even runs a twice yearly forum that attracts over 500 people from all over the island.

Alicia: I keep my phone on it’s like a 24-hour hotline and my phone rings all day. (Phone rings.) Let me see who this is. Oh, I hung up on her. That was actually a mother calling about her 16-year-old son. He uses and she doesn’t know what to do with him. (00.21)

Palermo Reddy calls herself Addiction Angel. She thinks telling stories and getting people to relate to each other will stop kids from dying. But it won’t help those who are addicted now if they overdose. That requires a different solution.

Sound: Cupboard Door Opening

Alicia: These are them. Overdose prevention rescue kit, English and Spanish

What Palermo Reddy’s showing me is the main line of defence in Staten Island’s attempt to tackle the addiction crisis.  Its essential element is a drug called Narcan.

Adrienne: Basically what Narcan does is it’s a blocker

Adrienne Buccolerri is director of the opioid prevention programme on Staten Island. When you take an opiate it attaches to receptors in your brain that tell your body to slow down. Often if the drug is too strong this can lead to your body shutting off. That’s an overdose.

Adrienne: The narcan comes and attaches to the opioid receptor on the brain and blocks it and takes away the opiate.

According to the NYPD, Narcan saved about 25 lives last year on Staten Island. And anyone can administer it. Staten island was the first place to trial Narcan and now it’s being rolled out across New York State. Boccolerri says since the programme started a few years back she’s trained thousands and thousands of people. And That’s easy because all it is, is a nasal spray.

The problem for Staten Island, though, is Narcan might save people’s lives, but that’s all it does.

So thoughts are turning towards the next generation.

Adrienne: We have to start working on the ones now, the young ones, the 9 years olds, the 10 year olds, so that when they get to high school they know, I’m not going near that.

So the NYPD and the Staten Island Borough President are launching a couple of initiatives this spring which aim to teach elementary school kids about the dangers of drugs and addiction.

But that’s too late for Clare Porcello.

Clare Porcello: I wish I could just wipe it all out of here. And now I have to sell my house because of this. My daughter is pregnant now and she has to grow up her child here. I’m scared, I really am. (00:07)

She’s leaving but her family’s staying. And Staten Island’s heroin problem isn’t going away fast.

Joe Sykes, Columbia Radio News.

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