The Monday morning rush hour crowd at the intersection of 15th Street and JFK Boulevard near City Hall paid little attention to Suleiman Hassan as he lay on the ground wrapped in blankets and ragged clothing. Like much of Philadelphia’s population of people experiencing homelessness, the man in tattered clothing appeared invisible to the passersby rushing to work and politicians holding court in the towering building next to him. But with a drug supply tainted by fentanyl, xylazine, and other synthetics causing overdose fatalities in the city to soar — in African American communities more so than anywhere else — Hassan needed his voice to be heard.
In the heart of Center City, Hassan, founder and CEO of Soldiers for Recovery, a nonprofit that assists people who use drugs and their families, stood in front of a banner with his organization’s logo above the tagline “by any means necessary don’t use.” For almost 30 minutes, his voice boomed over a microphone as he told his own story of drug use and recovery and offered help to anyone ready to take it.
“You can make it, because if I did it, you can do it,” Hassan said. “Seven years ago, I was up Badlands Kensington with nothing — nothing! But I stand before you today with seven years clean.”
The West Philadelphia native, who witnessed his mother’s substance use at a young age, first turned to drugs at 13-years-old in an attempt to fit in with those around him and escape from early childhood traumatic experiences. Eighteen years later, he found himself alone and with nothing in Kensington, having lost everything — his wife, his kids, and, as he said, even his cat — several times over. Hassan detoxed at Misercordia Hospital, which is now the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on Cedar Avenue, and went to rehab at Keystone Center, and hasn’t had a reason to use drugs since.
But with Soldiers for Recovery, Hassan took his newfound sobriety a step further because, in his own words, every person who uses drugs deserves another chance. Yet, with overdoses surging in Philadelphia’s Black neighborhoods, he’s not seeing those additional opportunities being shared in equal measure.
According to Hassan, not only is the city not doing enough to help African American communities in need, but it’s also treating many Black people who use drugs as second-class citizens.
“The difference is when you come to the African American community [drug use is] a crime,” Hassan said. “It’s labeled a crime. If you go to other communities, the Caucasian community, then they’re sick, they need help.”
So Hassan uses Soldiers for Recovery to put words into action. He posts videos and livestreams on his Instagram page, such as his recent downtown sermon, where he can bring his message of hope and recovery to people everywhere. Those in need can contact Hassan anytime, day or night, whether they need to find a meeting, a trip to rehab, or someone who will listen.
And, as a soldier, Hassan is out on the front lines every day.
In addition, the Soldiers for Recovery CEO goes to poverty-stricken communities in Philadelphia and throughout the northeastern United States, bringing help and resources to anyone struggling with drug use. Next month he launches the No Man Left Behind program, designed in conjunction with persons who have over 45 years of combined experience in the field of addiction. With that, Hassan will use his lived experience and proven strategies to help people find success through an eight-week intensive recovery program.
Still, according to Hassan, the implicit bias shown in the city’s handling of the overdose crisis, especially in Black and Brown communities, needs to change — and that’s something that starts at the top. “You have people in different positions of power that can do things to help, but they choose to not,” Hassan said. “It’s sad that we live in a society that’s this way, that they will treat African Americans different from their white counterparts.”
Like many people who use drugs, Suleiman Hassan struggled with childhood traumas that left him lost, alone, and with nothing — so much, so that life on the streets felt more comfortable than facing his emotional distress. But at the intersection of 15th and JFK, during the morning rush hour, he showed Philadelphia how powerful recovery could be.
“I stand before you today with seven years clean as a business owner, as a father, as a constructive member of my community bringing awareness to this disease of addiction,” Hassan, who’s also recently signed up for college, said.
And then he pulled off his tattered clothes to reveal a fresh-pressed suit as several passersby stopped to take notice.