PHILADELPHIA — Under the weight of a soaked blanket, Megan Cohen inched her way, on foot, along a stretch of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia, the rain beating against her frail body.
She wasn’t looking to be saved.
“I was so broken. I was homeless at that point for quite a while and I wasn’t in the right state of mind at all,” said Cohen. “Tons of people drove right past me. I may have driven right past me.”
Coming off his shift as an Uber driver, Joshua Santiago spotted Cohen as she headed toward Bensalem.
“Something in my heart told me to stop,” said Santiago. “I was about to go home and lay in a warm bed.”
When he pulled over, Cohen was skeptical about his intentions, “but being so cold I didn’t care what happened ... I had no hope or will to live at that point.”
“I asked him why he would let me in his car when it’s obvious what I am.”
“You are still a person,” Santiago told her.
For years, Cohen lived in a perpetual state of hunger, trauma and pain. Eventually, she landed on the streets of Kensington, the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast.
Not long after Santiago offered her a ride, two other “angels” stepped into her path — one gave her a hot meal and a place to shower; another offered her cold water and encouraging words.
Today, the power of those moments fuels Cohen’s faith in humankind and strengthens her resolve to save others who feel trapped, as she once did, in the throes of addiction.
Nearly two years after her chance encounters, Cohen, 27, is in recovery, has reunited with her family, and found her way back to school and steady work in Bucks County.
Yet the Warrington native and Central Bucks South graduate still heads back to the streets she once so desperately wished to flee.
“If I could get out, anyone could get out,” said Cohen, who is intent on spreading hope and showing proof that recovery does happen.
But Kensington has changed since she left.
“It’s worse. It’s been forgotten.”
The heroin epidemic has been overshadowed and worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, displacing many users from shelters to the streets where few people wear masks.
Despite both health and safety risks, Cohen returns weekly to Kensington, bringing food, clothes, blankets and her own story of recovery, hoping to show others a way out.
This time, she’s not alone. With her mother, Jennifer, and dozens of supporters uniting behind her cause, Cohen has formed The Grace Project, a nonprofit to help people facing obstacles in life — whether it’s addiction or something else.
The point, Cohen said, is to “show grace and bring hope to those in need.”
Brian Kaye, a Grace Project volunteer and long-time recovery advocate in Bucks County, said Cohen’s energy, message and project come at a critical time, as community help is needed to sway people to get help and give help, too.
“When it comes to people actually caring about us, especially at our lowest point, it’s expected our parents are going to care. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always resonate with us,” said Kaye, who once was addicted to heroin and now works to get others off the streets. “But when a stranger steps in and shows they care and they make us feel like a human being, which is so vitally important, that’s when we can become willing to seek help.”
Fighting for others
One recent night, walking through the littered streets of Kensington, Cohen was fearless, approaching clusters of people wrapped in layers of clothing hunkered in makeshift tents.
The scene is tough for many to stomach.
On Kensington Avenue, a man lay motionless on the sidewalk, while foot traffic moved around him. A volunteer checked to make sure he was still breathing, then left a bottle of water beside him. Most pedestrians passed by without a glance.
A few blocks away, blood streamed down the face of a drug user after he was jumped by a local teen gang. Bikers weaved through crowds, making exchanges. Syringes and needles were out and used plain sight.
“This is normal,” one volunteer said. “A week like any other.”
Cohen’s platinum hair bounced against a black shirt that read, “Hope Dealer,” as she handed out water and asked people walking by, “Are you hungry?”
The hardest part, she said, is when she sees a familiar face, someone she knew when she lived on the streets.
“They can’t believe it; a lot of times they don’t recognize me,” said Cohen, thinking about one visit to her “old block” where people gathered around her. “They said, ‘Look who it is.’ It gives them a little bit of hope.”
They remember her when she was at her worst.
One recent night, after handing out clothes and food at Kensington’s notorious Needle Park, Cohen squatted on the littered sidewalk under the soft glow of a street light and looked into the eyes of a 29-year-old woman from Quakertown who was devoid of hope.
The woman had been walking in shoes that were so small that she had to slice them with a knife to fit her feet in them. The woman, who has lived on the streets for three years, described her days.
“I don’t necessarily live out here,” she said. “I don’t sleep — period. I don’t have a spot that I go; I don’t have a set up. I don’t have anything. I literally walk around all day long, every day. I do a date, I get drugs, I get high. I do a date, I get drugs, I get high, over and over again. There is not a single thing else that I do.”
She told Cohen about her past relapses and the time she begged for help and couldn’t get it because she lacked insurance and money to pay for it. Cohen asked if she could help, but the woman said she didn’t feel strong enough.
“I’m stuck this time ... I feel like I have no reason or desire to want a life. I don’t feel like I’m going to have one. I don’t feel like I have the energy to have one. I just need to be as high as possible at all times. I do outrageous amounts of drugs.
“I can’t overdose for the life of me. I try.”
Cohen asked the woman again. “Do you want to go into treatment?”
“Part of me does. But also, no,” she answered.
As Cohen spoke, police cars and ambulances, sirens blaring, rounded the corner. Just a block away and minutes earlier, a man had been shot. A few feet away, the man who had been jumped by the group of teens stood as blood dripped from his forehead down his cheeks.
The group, sensing more violence was on the way, called on volunteers to head back.
“Listen,” Cohen told her. “We are out here every Thursday. Think about it over the next week, and let me know.”
In the woman’s eyes, Cohen saw a reflection of her former self.
“I saw me in her; she’s exactly where I was at,” Cohen said. “She genuinely doesn’t see a happy ending in sight. She even said she hopes to overdose. That’s how I felt out there in the end. It’s heartbreaking because if I can make it out, anyone can.”
Before parting ways, she reminded the young woman that she would return the next Thursday — and the Thursday after that.
“I’m praying I see her again.”
A way out
Cohen can relate to people on the streets who refuse help, as she once resisted the idea herself.
She said living addicted on the streets evokes feelings of shame and guilt that are so deep “they are hard to know unless you’ve experienced them,” she said.
After 71 stints in treatment and living homeless in Detroit, California and Lancaster, Cohen said guilt and shame over past failed attempts diminished hopes for recovery. It took the action and words of others to shine a light on what she could not see in herself.
Santiago, for example, “reminded me I was more than just a junkie.”
“(He) was the start of my eyes opening up,” she said.
Then there was a Hispanic woman who approached Cohen on the streets. She grabbed her and asked someone nearby to translate a message.
“She’s been seeing you out here,” the translator told Cohen. “She feels you don’t belong out here, that you are better than this.”
Cohen began sharing her story. How she had been on heroin and crack. How she robbed her grandmother, one of her closest relatives. How she was in and out of jail for her crimes. And how she didn’t see a way out.
The woman invited Cohen into her home to take a shower.
“She gave me clean clothes and food and gave me a hug. We couldn’t talk, but she looked into my eyes, she teared up. I teared up. I remember looking at her and thinking, ‘God, I see you.’”
Cohen had been praying for a sign. This, she knew, was it.
Leaving the woman’s house, Cohen headed to Prevention Point, a refuge in Kensington for those seeking help. She called her mother, saying she was ready to turn herself in for the crimes she committed and ready to accept help.
Now, she believes it’s her turn to remind others of their worth.
Two crises collide
The heroin problem is worse than Cohen remembered. Addiction experts blame the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted treatment and recovery programs and left people more isolated. More than 40 states have recorded increases in opioid-related deaths since the pandemic began, according to the American Medical Association.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, highlighted growing challenges during a recent Zoom interview.
“The health care system is not prepared to take care of them,” said Volkow, adding that stigma and social issues — compounded with new distancing protocols — create more barriers.
“The concept of social distancing makes such people even more vulnerable because it interferes with many of the support systems that can help them to reach recovery. And, on top of that, drugs themselves negatively influence human physiology, making one more vulnerable to getting infected and more vulnerable to worse outcomes.”
She said it’s become harder for patients to be able to access treatment.
“And because of social isolation, if you overdose, the likelihood that someone can rescue you with naloxone is much lower,” Volkow said.
Pennsylvania leaders addressed the growing crisis amid COVID during a Dec. 8 press conference.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate the lives of loved ones, the opioid epidemic hasn’t ended,” said Jennifer Smith, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. “We are losing far too many Pennsylvanians to drug-related fatalities.”
Smith said the isolating nature of the pandemic has been especially challenging to those in recovery who depend on people in the community and a support system. Now, with most help offered online, “support groups look and feel very different.”
She encouraged people struggling with addiction to reach out for help by calling 1-800-662-HELP.
Cohen knows, however, that users addicted on the street don’t always have a phone, nor a way to connect with resources. That is why street outreach is even more critical, she said. Yet, over the last year, Cohen has seen a decrease in the number of community volunteer groups out in Kensington.
“This is why we have to go every week,” she said.
Cohen said it seems like a lifetime ago when she walked that stretch of I-95 in the rain. Months after she went into recovery, she thought about Santiago, that “first angel,” and even tried to find him.
Then, in September, fate stepped in. Santiago found her.
Someone on Facebook thought she might like a post from a man who goes out to Kensington to give free haircuts to the homeless. When she clicked on the video, her eyes filled with tears.
It was Santiago, the man who changed her life.
Santiago had learned about The Grace Project and was in awe of the woman who he recognized behind the new effort, so he posted an emotional video about his encounter with Cohen that rainy night.
Celebrating news of her recovery, he said: “She’s running her own nonprofit organization, going back to the community she was getting high at trying to help people ... I feel a loss of words.”
Cohen called him soon after and learned that Santiago was one of the angels she had been searching for.
“Anyone who has heard me speak has heard me refer to my ‘angels’ when I was out there,” she said. “This is what I call the few strangers who showed me love when everyone else along with myself had given up on me.
“I was so broken and hopeless I would pray for a sign I was still worth it and that my life was meant for more. It was people like Joshua and a few others that reignited a spark in me to get my life back on track.”
It wasn’t just a life that Santiago gave her.
“When I started The Grace Project, the main point of it was to bring that feeling of love and understanding to others like me, to show them that people still see the human in them and that there is hope,” Cohen said.
“To spread the same message Joshua gave me that night.”