The Heroin Tour Guide of Kensington | Philadelphia’s Drug Epidemic

On occasion when you hear something mind-bending, such as the fact that over 33,000 Americans died last year at the hands of heroin and opioid painkillers, it’s easy to forget about individuals. Joseph Stalin, literally one of the worst people in history, reputedly said: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of one million men is a statistic.” While meant in brutal fashion at the time, there is an air of truth to this statement.

It’s almost as if we get sadder and have higher levels of empathy when there is a face and a name involved. Regarding the heroin/painkiller epidemic currently raging in our nation, not only do tens of thousands people perish; many many more are essentially in line to.

If you were to consider that every day millions of Americans abuse either heroin or prescription pills that nearly equivalent in strength, you might feel a slight sadness, a sort of melancholy. However, an intimate glance at an individual whose life is shattered and shattering because of a drug – that will make you feel something much deeper. That is why we want to give you an intimate glance at someone named Ray Rivero, one of the original ‘runners’ of Kensington, and at his girlfriend Carol, who is trapped by the vise grip of heroin addiction, and knows it.

A Little Background

Kensington is a neighborhood within Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and it has gained quite a negative reputation. The downfall of the neighborhood began in the late 1970s, when the K&A Gang switched their business from burglary to meth. The K&A Gang, currently known as the Northeast Philly Irish Mob, got their original name by using the first letters of the two most prominent cities of gang operation: Kensington and Allegheny. (The city of Allegheny became part of the city of Pittsburgh in 1907.)

The early 1980s was a drug boom in the US, and meth use was soaring. The K&A Gang was manufacturing one hundred pounds of methamphetamine in every batch. By 1983, Philly was known as the meth capital of the world. The gang’s drug ring grew until 1987, when it was finally brought down over a four-year process in 1991. However, just because the ring was broken-up did not mean the drugs were gone.

In fact, what seems to have happened is that once the major meth dealer was taken out, several other minor meth dealers popped up. It stayed so bad that in 1998 there were nine people accused of major meth lab operations in Philadelphia, by the US Grand Jury. Still though, crime outweighed law enforcement, because the number of meth labs in Philly only grew from 2000 until 2004. In the year 2000, eight meth labs were found and brought down. Four years later, there were sixty labs.

The taste for meth was quickly forgotten when a new drug delicacy was brought to Kensington: heroin. At the beginning of the millennium, approximately 4,500 visits to the ER due to heroin occurred. The next year, in 2001, there were nearly a thousand more ER visits. Also in 2001, the state’s Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program showed nearly 15% of those arrested in Philly tested positive for opioids.

kensington philadelphia heroin epidemic

Flash forward a full decade. The pharmaceutical industry successfully has more Americans prescribed to opioid-based painkillers than ever – enough for every adult to have a bottle. This is making a very long and complicated story short, but basically painkiller addiction and an inability to refill at will leads to a full-blown heroin epidemic. More Americans die from drug overdoses in the next five years, from 2011 to 2016, than from any other accidental cause of death, including vehicle crashes and gunshot wounds.

August 13th, 2011: Jeff Deeney of the Daily Beast publishes an article on Kensington Avenue, the heartland of the heartland of heroin in Pennsylvania, if you will. The article is quite eye-opening, and is the perfect segue into the life of Ray Rivero and girlfriend Carol Yancer.

The Daily Beast Article

In late 2010, Antonio Rodriguez murdered several people, mostly heroin-addicted hookers, in the Kensington area, and became known as the Kensington Strangler. He was arrested in early 2011, but because his main hunting ground was on Kensington Avenue, the fear left behind by Rodriguez had a direct effect on local drug abuse.

The police stopped really caring about addicts getting high on the streets.

According to Deeney’s article, local addict Will Sims described the phenomenon as such: “Ever since the Strangler, we do everything out in the open and the cops are cool with it.” Apparently several other local addicts agreed with Sims, and in essence Deeney discovered that Kensington Avenue in 2011 was essentially “a drug-bust-free zone.”

It did not take long at all for the Avenue, as it’s known, to become the ultimate Pennsylvanian drug market. The street runs underneath the El, one of the state’s above-ground trolley systems. Deeney in his article described the scene as “…a crowd of addicts nearly 100 strong,” and saying that they are all “…’running and gunning’ around the clock for days, selling needles and prescription pills, or prostituting on the Avenue to hustle up enough money for another bag of heroin.”

Enter Ray and Carol.

Heroin Tour Guide

Deeney mentions the verb ‘running’ in his description of the Avenue. This is usually a reference to acquiring and selling drugs, but in the case of Ray Rivero and Carol Yancer, running translates to a lot more. Let’s say you’re someone from Chestnut Hill, a traditionally rich area of Philly, and you want to (God forbid) score some heroin. There is a good chance you’re heading to Kensington Avenue. There is also a good chance you’ll encounter Ray, who goes by Ray Rocz. According to a recent article by Mike Newall of the Inquirer of Philly, he’s one of the, if not the, premier runner in the area.

Ray will flag you down by offering ‘works’ which are clean syringes to be used for heroin injection. That is not where the tour ends, though. In some odd, wrong, and obviously illegal way, Ray actually has one heck of a work ethic compared to other runners.

People who get off the El at the Kensington stop are extremely likely to hear Ray saying, “Works. Works.” This is slang for clean needles, which Ray will supply. Next comes guidance toward where to score the highest quality drug, usually heroin but crack and cocaine are not out of the question. It doesn’t stop there. If necessary or requested, Ray will inject you and shoot the heroin into you.

His girlfriend Carol makes money a different way – by selling her body. She prostitutes herself up and down the Avenue. Together they make enough money to support their habit of using 30 bags of heroin every day. For extra money, Ray will pickpocket junkies passed out on the road. They are a homeless, junkie, dope-peddling couple.

On paper, this couple is an exact example of the problem. They distribute and facilitate the abuse of a drug that kills over 75 people daily. They themselves use at an alarming rate. So how did they get here? And what’s in the future for them?

An Intimate Glance

Ray Rivero was born in Kensington, poor, and with an alcoholic father. Heroin was a part of his life since he was a boy. Carol lived locally and was in a physically abusive relationship prior to meeting Ray, who was in prison until 2013 for check forgery and went to stay with his mother upon release. Within weeks, he was thrown out of the house for pawning the television set. Over the next two years, Ray nurtured his heroin addiction and met Carol in March of 2017. They lived on the streets. Eventually Ray began selling and Carol began prostituting, and the rest is what you know now.

Ray has two children, both of whom he’s lost custody. Carol has three children and this author cannot find any information regarding custody, but one has to believe she has none. [She used to pawn their video games and other belongings for money before being homeless and she says part of why she uses is to forget the shame of this.]

They stay on a church stoop very near Ray’s mother’s house. It’s also a mere five minutes from Carol’s mother’s place. Nowadays, they are seemingly making less money than usual. This could be due to the fact that well over 50 other runners exist on the Avenue presently. Things are grim all round, really. Ray’s sister suffered a fatal overdose about a month ago. Carol cries a lot. She misses her kids. Ray wonders why he’s not sadder.

But tomorrow they will wake up. Carol will put on some sleazy outfit and lean against a telephone pole while under the El, Ray will chant, “Works. Works.”

In Conclusion

Is this couple a part of the problem, a product of a town riddled by drugs for nearly 40 years, or both? A solid argument can be made either way. Luckily we are not here to debate, only to provide a look into what actually goes on in two of the millions of lives of heroin addicts. Sometimes it truly is a tragedy up close and just a stat from afar.

The future is always a question mark, but the fact is that Philadelphia is second only to NYC when it comes to heroin consumption. Kensington surely is a large part of why. Also, heroin pushed in the Kensington area also tends to flow into Allentown, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and other locations. It truly is a flooded area, and if people are products of their environments, it’s really no wonder Ray and Carol live the way they do.

Consider this quote from The Philly Inquirer:

“Along a half-mile gorge cut by a Conrail line that runs through Kensington and Fairhill, tens of thousands of used syringes and their tossed off orange caps cover the sloping ground like a plague of locusts. The contaminated needles make conditions so hazardous that even some police officers are reluctant to traverse the embankments to get to dead overdose victims at the bottom.”

Truthfully, there are so many other areas in Kensington with descriptions like this in the media that listing them here would be frivolous. There is a library in McPherson Park where librarians are trained in administering Narcan. Let that soak in!

Casey O’Donnell, president of Impact Service Corporation, a community service center offering housing, health services, etc., said this about Kensington: “If we can talk about it as a health crisis, then there is an epicenter to that the crisis, and that’s it right there.”

Last year almost a thousand people died from heroin overdoses in Philadelphia alone. The number of fentanyl deaths doubled from 2015. Emergency room visits for overdoses doubled from 2007. Perhaps the scariest of all is that an order from the Physician General made Narcan available without a prescription to the general public. You can buy it like Advil.

If you or someone you know is struggling with heroin, prescription painkillers, or any substance at all, we are here to help. We’re here to assist and help our community overcome this epidemic. Call us today.