Drugs killed more Americans last year than died in the Vietnam War.
Tens of thousands of people have become hooked on prescription painkillers after operations, childbirth, and injuries.
The highly-addictive and expensive pills have driven many to seek cheaper cut-price alternatives like heroin and fentanyl on the street.
Usually, that means delving into a world like Philadelphia’s Kensington Avenue, home to the usual suspects of a down-and-out neighborhood (sex workers, homeless veterans, drop-outs) who come from all over the country, according to the DEA.
Experts advising the federal government warn that any moves to drive down painkiller prescriptions will be futile if street-cut opioids are still as accessible as sugar, and the ones who succumb to them are left to flounder.
Matt Neal was battling addiction after leaving jail, and contracted MRSA (sepsis) in his left leg. Due to his addiction, he couldn’t keep up with his treatment regimen and despite in-patient care, doctors eventually amputated his left calf. He was one of Jeffrey Stockbridge’s first subjects on Kensington Avenue, and is now one of the first in his next project: recovering
Before: Matt Neal (left) was part of Stockbridge’s series in 2012, pictured here with his friend Gato outside the library
Tanya sits on the steps of the El Train at Kensington and Somerset in 2010. The 25-year-old said she has been escorting with an agency since she was 18 and does a bag of dope every morning before she leaves the house
A man named Vinny is pictured above in 2011 showing off his numerous tattoos on his chest and arms
It means this photo series – a years-long project by Jeffrey Stockbridge documenting heroin addicts along Kensington Avenue – has been gradually gaining traction.
The collection of large-format portraits started on a blog, photographing people in various binds of addiction, homelessness and crime, with short annotations about their journey.
While most urban areas are starting to curb addiction, Philadelphia – America’s largest poorest city – is still seeing an unwavering increase.
More than half of the residents of Kensington live below the poverty line, and half of those are in extreme poverty.
And business is booming.
A woman named Lauren is pictured above in 2009 writing in a notebook. In her note, she said she arrived in Philadelphia in February of 2008 and ‘first began using illicit substances at the same time’
An unknown woman is pictured above on East Sterner Street in 2010 standing behind a brick wall full of graffiti
A man named Bobby is pictured above in 2010 flexing his muscles and showing off his numerous tattoos
Carol, pictured in 2010 at the age of 41. She told Stockbridge she’d been using on-and-off for 21 years, since she was 20. ‘I had gotten an inheritance and I spent it all, after I bought a house,’ she explained. ‘And Heroin was one of the things that I… that made me not feel anymore. So, and it became…it became, you know, the love of my life.’
Carroll, pictured in 2009, told Stockbridge she often sleeps out in the open during the day as a safety precaution – a bag of her personal belongings tightly grasped in her lap
A woman named Jamie is pictured above standing inside of a passageway in 2011
A man named OG Willy is pictured above with a skeleton hoodie zipped up over his face in 2011
The street’s heroin market is largely run by Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.
According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, people come from all over the country to partake in a kind of ‘heroin tourism’ market.
Because there is so much competition, dealers need to be selling ‘the purest’ heroin, at least 93 percent, agents explain.
For the residents, the fanfare over this market is late – this has been a reality for decades.
‘I’m glad people are finally paying attention. It’s too bad it had to wait, and in Philly it was the number one cause of death under 50,’ Stockbridge told Daily Mail Online.
He came across the community by accident, and readily admits that he avoided them at first, while photographing abandoned buildings for a college project.
Sarah, 2011. ‘I’m homeless,’ she told Stockbridge. ‘I, um… I’m 55, I have a Master’s degree in psychology but after my husband of 20 years, Mother, and Father, uh, died in a car accident two, two years ago, I uh lost my home of twenty some years in Mount Holly, New Jersey, I lost my entire family, my career, um, my health, all in one fell swoop. Uh, yeah.’
An unknown man is pictured above sitting in a wheelchair with his head bowed in 2009
A woman named Ashley is pictured above in 2012 standing near piles of trash among plants
A duo of scrappers are pictured above pushing a grocery cart full of items in the middle of the street in 2010
Sarah and Dennis get high in 2009 on the abandoned tracks above Kensington Avenue. The veins in Sarah’s arms were unable to properly handle the injection, so at her request, Dennis shoots her in the neck
Stockbridge, who hails from a cabin in the woods in Woodbine, Maryland, said he had rarely had any contact with such a community, aside from seeing some urban areas while skating.
But on the final day of shooting his architecture project, a sex worker started talking to him, ‘and I realized, these people are the ones I need to talk to’.
Now, almost 10 years later, Stockbridge finds the sudden flurry of federal attention on street drugs abrupt, and welcome.
‘The amount of time I’ve spent meeting people struggling with addiction… I’ve met so many different kinds of people – it could be anyone.
Pat & Rachel, Front and N Lee Street, 2012. At the time, they had been married for 11 years. They told Stockbridge that, when they met, Rachel wasn’t into drugs but Pat was – ‘dabbing and doping’. Then they ‘dialed it down’ and had kids, but Rachel fell ill and went on prescription painkillers. That sent them on a spiral. Rachel told Jeffrey on his blog: ‘[I]t got to the point where you know, we called uh, Children and Youth on ourselves and gave our kids over… it was the most selfless thing I could do, people say it’s selfish, but I thought I was doing the best I could.’
Pictured above is the intersection of C and Tusculum Street in 2012 as two people walk down one of the roads
Krista got clean: Krista, pictured in 2014, first appeared in the series in 2009. She called Stockbridge years later to say she was now clean. She told him: ‘I couldn’t say that it was like a traumatic event that made me wanna get clean or, you know, I didn’t find God or anything like that, I just, you know, I feel like I just grew up, you know? I was thirty-three when I got clean; I’m thirty-six now, and I feel like I’ve wasted my life.’
‘Some people fall into it, some people were dealt a bad hand at birth.
‘In general the US has ignored overprescribing opioids and now we are at a point where we can’t ignore it any longer.’
Speaking to people in Kensington, Stockbridge has found most people don’t know the ins and outs of the Trump administrations various plans to cut down on addiction, and most can’t see a way that the methods will reach them.
‘What we need are creative solutions which really come down to the individual, and supporting people in communities we normally don’t support,’ Stockbridge said.