A mother to Philadelphia's addicted sons and daughters

Carol Rostucher patrols the most troubled parts of Philadelphia, giving food, hugs and hope to addicts

PHILADELPHIA – Once a thriving shopping district, Philadelphia's Kensington Avenue is now an eyesore, peppered with abandoned buildings, factories and row houses.

It's a neighborhood where the people have been forgotten and where the forgotten go to forget.

“It's known up and down the East Coast," said Carol Rostucher, as she rolled down Kensington – a drive she does almost daily to hand out water, food, toiletries and clothes to people with addictions. "Because when different people go into treatment, they'll tell me, ‘…They look at you like you're some kind of celebrity. They don't get the hell you just been through. They're like, 'Oh my God. You're from Kensington. They have great heroin.'’"

The resurgence of heroin across America has hit Philadelphia particularly hard. More than half of the 629 people who died from drugs in the city in 2015 had heroin in their system, according to the city's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services.

Rostucher knows all too well the pain of addiction. Her sister is a heroin addict and her 25-year-old son used to live on Kensington's streets after heroin took hold of his life.

"My son said the first time he tried heroin he knew he was hooked," she said. "I don't know the feeling. I guess it's like euphoria."

When her son was at the worst of his addiction, she patrolled Kensington – where she was born and raised – searching for him. With her son now in recovery and living out of state, Rostucher continues to patrol Kensington Avenue, playing the role of mom for many other young addicts, some of whom are looking to get clean and need guidance.

While many people may have given up on these lost souls, including their own families, Rostucher refuses to do so.

“Everyone thought my son was hopeless, everybody,” she said. "I’ve have grown to love a lot of these people down here. I want to help them, I want to help them find their way out."

'A more intense high'

More than four decades after President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, heroin remains an estimated $27 billion industry. Many health experts point to the country's mounting painkiller problem as a source for the spike in heroin use. In 2012, American doctors wrote 259 million painkiller prescriptions.

A patient starts out being prescribed an opiate for pain, which he or she might need at that time. Some patients take more of it when they no longer need it and become dependent on a prescription opiate, said Dr. Ellen Unterwald, the director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at Temple University School of Medicine.

“At that point, they realize that it's cheaper, and sometimes easier to get heroin. And it gives them a greater high," she said. “So they transition from prescription drug use to heroin use.”

A fentanyl analog that is being used to cut heroin, making it cheaper and more powerful.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported a significant recent jump in heroin deaths. In 2013, heroin use killed more than 8,000 Americans – an average of 23 people a day. Meanwhile, drug deaths involving heroin quadrupled between 2000 and 2013, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

In an alarming new trend, dealers are increasingly cutting heroin with the powerful painkiller fentanyl, creating a cheaper, even more powerful drug. Used as an anesthetic for surgical procedures and to treat severe pain associated with cancer, fentanyl gets into the brain extremely rapidly, and only small quantities are needed for an intense high.

“Many of the drug dealers push their products as being a more intense high, a more potent heroin," Unterwald said. "So they use fentanyl to improve the potency of their product that they're selling.”

Last year, 100 people in Philadelphia overdosed from fentanyl-laced heroin.

In March, the Drug Enforcement Agency issued a nationwide alert about fentanyl.

“Often laced in heroin, fentanyl and fentanyl analogs produced in illicit clandestine labs are up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and 30-50 times more powerful than heroin," DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said.

Dealers also cut heroin with fentanyl’s cousin, acetyl fentanyl, a designer drug created to get around strict governmental regulations by changing the drug’s molecular structure.

“It's so potent that very small quantities are needed to produce the same high. It gets into the brain very, very rapidly,” Unterwald said. “I'm not sure anybody (can make it) but street drug makers are incredibly good chemists.” 

'I worry for all of them'

Carol Rostucher speaks with one of the men she regularly helps in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood.
America Tonight

Back on Kensington Avenue, Rostucher pulled over in front of a corner store next to the elevated train tracks. Grabbing an overflowing Ziploc bag and bottled water, she jumped out and made her way across the street to a man in a knit hat holding a sign asking for donations.

When their eyes met, a mile-wide smile crossed his haggard face.

“There you are,” Rostucher yelled over the train rumbling overhead. “It’s hot, make sure you drink plenty of water.”

Continuing her rounds, she ushered a man over to her car and handed him a pair of sneakers in his size. After telling another addict over and over that he deserved much better, she got out of the car, called him "sweet cheeks" and wrapped him in a motherly hug.

At left is Carol Rostucher's son, Drew, when he was addicted to heroin and living on the street in Kensington. Now that he's in recovery, his face is filling back in.
America Tonight

Rostucher, who now lives in a nearby suburb, says she shows addicts in Kensington her son's photo from before he entered recovery. Many recognize him, she says, and they're shocked when she pulls out a photo of him after recovery wearing a button-up shirt with his face filled out and healthy.

Then she tells them, "So if he can do it, why don't you think you can?"

In February, she created the group Angels in Motion to coordinate more volunteers to help people with addictions.

"I worry for all of them," she said. "They deserve a second chance at life." 

Until something more is done about the growing heroin epidemic, she will continue to patrol the streets of Kensington. Before heading home, she made one last stop to see a man she knows is close to entering rehab.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said as she leaned toward the passenger window and handed him bottled water.

“I've had clean time before, Carol,” he said.

“I know,” she said, smiling.

“I mean, you just need a little a little help getting there. That's all,” he said, starting to cry. “It's bad. This is not good in life.”

Rostucher got out of the car and wrapped her arms around his frail body as he sobbed.

After settling him down, she got back in her car.

“You see," she said. "This is why I do this.”

Sarah Hoye contributed reporting. 

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