Opposition to a potential Kensington location of a supervised injection facility has been reaching a crescendo in recent days after a fiery neighborhood meeting last week and subsequent circulation of a new petition against the proposition.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, a proponent of overdose prevention sites in the city, revealed last month that a developer had offered Safehouse, the Philadelphia nonprofit trying to open the country’s first supervised injection facility, a property for $1 on Hilton Street, right in the heart of the “K&A” – the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny avenues, which has long been the city’s major drug hub.
Safehouse’s supervised injection facility would offer users a designated location to inject drugs under medical supervision and receive overdose reversal if necessary, as well as wound care, other medical treatment and links to rehabilitation programs. Proponents argue that it would bring users inside, reducing the amount of open-air drug use and the discarding of syringes and drug paraphernalia on city streets.
Dr. Thomas Farley, commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Health, took his arguments for safe injection sites to a national level last week in a First Opinion piece for STAT News.
“Many individuals who inject drugs eventually recover and stop using, but it typically takes years,” Farley wrote. “In the meantime, they continue to risk death daily by injecting heroin or [a combination of] heroin and fentanyl. So as an additional harm-reduction solution, activists and health experts like me are proposing to open sites where drug users who are not yet in treatment can inject these drugs under medical supervision.”
Nonetheless, community opposition to a Safehouse site is considerable, with neighbors struggling to see through their fear and anger to objectively examine a necessary question: What’s the harm in harm reduction?
The Harrowgate Civic Association, which encompasses Hilton Street, has started a petition to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, collecting more than 500 signatures by late Saturday. The petition cites, among other issues, that the city has no “public safety strategy” for supervised injection facilities.
“You don’t start in Kensington where you’ve lost the vote of confidence of people because we’ve not been able to keep them safe,” said City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who represents District 7, which includes Kensington.
She suggested putting the first location elsewhere in the city and proving that the model worked before bringing a supervised injection facility into Kensington.
Maribel Flores, 47, who lives on Jasper Street near the intersection with Hilton Street, said that if the overdose prevention site opened there, she would move. As she held her 2-year-old grandson Isaiah, Flores said she was worried such a facility would increase drug use in the area.
“As far as supervised injection facilities, I’m not totally against them, but it doesn’t correct the ongoing issue of the opioid crisis. “It’s only enabling users.”
– Peter Smith, 53, of Tacony, candidate for City Council’s 6th District
Flores noted that three women were recently passed out in the street in front of the rowhouse she shares with her daughter, Jackie Rodriguez until medics arrived to administer Narcan, the overdose reversal medication. Still, Flores and Rodriguez felt that this type of drug activity would increase rather than decrease with the introduction of a supervised injection facility.
“My mom suffers from anxiety and panic attacks,” Rodriguez said. “She gets anxiety and panic attacks when she sees this [drug use].”
Ronda Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and the vice president and secretary for Safehouse, assured the public at last week’s meeting that no location has been set for a possible supervised injection facility.
“We want to be partners with you,” she said about working with the community. “We recognize [residents] were very upset and angry. This is a conversation we’re going to need to have many times over.”
Kat McCord, 59, who lives at Frankford Avenue and Clearfield, said she is not totally opposed to the idea of a supervised injection facility, but that her “gut tells [her] it would be enabling.”
McCord’s daughter, Tina Sexton, died of a heroin overdose at 31 in 2014, leaving behind two kids and a grief-stricken, scarred family.
“I’m hoping and praying that if someone OD’s, they wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to put my family through this,’” McCord said.
She also added that it would be ideal if supervised injection facilities made their intended positive impact, but she thinks having Narcan dispensers on street corners would make a bigger difference. If someone were really dope sick, she noted, they would not walk to an overdose prevention site to shoot up.
“I would like right now, if I could, go lay up somewhere safe, but these cops just want to grab anybody to make a collar,” said a user, Edward S., 51, sitting on a stoop in the morning sun on Allegheny Avenue, near the proposed site.
He preferred not to give his last name.
“There are too many problems with [a supervised injection facility],” he added. “Everyone would be outside of it. Do [cops] arrest them going in or coming out? It’s a crazy idea.”
Dan Emery, owner of Philly Ink Tattoo at 3216 Kensington Avenue, grew up in the neighborhood and has had many family members suffer from addiction. Based on his personal experience, Emery said he is not insensitive to people suffering from substance use disorders.
“All these people out here, they’re somebody’s family… [I’m] a little numb to it, and it does get me a little enraged,” he said, referring to the open-air drug use.
“If they go in and get high and come out high, they’re still on the street high. [So now the mentality is], ‘well, hey. We can go get high, and if I happen to flatline, they’re just going to bring me back.’”
– Dan Emery, Kensington resident and owner of Philly Ink Tattoo
Recently, he had to call 911 because a woman overdosed in a portable bathroom near his shop, and her head ended up in the toilet.
“The anger kind of masks my concern for the neighborhood,” said Emery, who remembers walking down the street for a slice of pizza at 7 p.m. when he was a kid. “Now, I don’t like to walk at night by myself – and I’m 45 years old.”
He worries that an overdose prevention site in the area would cause even more users to congregate near his store, and he doubts that it would be effective, adding that he’s seen a 30 percent drop in his business over the past decade.
“If they go in and get high and come out high, they’re still on the street high,” Emery said. “[They’ll think] ‘Well, hey. We can go get high, and if I happen to flatline, they’re just going to bring me back.’”
Katherine Gomes, 42, who lives with her 2-year-old son on Jasper Street near the intersection of Hilton Street, disapproved of a possible overdose prevention site. Gomes said if it moved some of the drug use she witnesses on her street indoors, it would be an improvement.
“If it cleans things up, that’s good, but I don’t think it will,” she added.
Gomes added that she worried about dealers congregating in the area and the possibility of increased violence.
“God forbid [users] don’t have the money,” Gomes said, referring to fears over dealer retribution.
“As far as supervised injection facilities, I’m not totally against them, but it doesn’t correct the ongoing issue of the opioid crisis,” said Peter Smith, 53, of Tacony, a candidate for City Council’s 6th District, which borders the area where the purported injection site might be implemented. “It’s enabling users.”
Smith, who has a son in active addiction, said, “All I can do is tell him I love him and want him to come home.”
But Smith added he does worry, among other things, about what happens to users after they shoot up and go back out onto the streets.
“Who’s responsible for that person when he’s killed by a car?” Smith wondered.
Goldfein emphasized that “nothing is final in any way,” adding, “I really think [neighbors] are too angry about all of it to think about this as a real solution. It’s hard to put some of that anger and frustration on hold to think about this clearly.”
According to Goldfein, the site could be temporary, with a more permanent site established at a later date. Nothing has been settled yet, especially since federal prosecutors in Philadelphia recently filed a civil lawsuit trying to block Safehouse’s work.
Safehouse has filed a response in court. As that continues to percolate through the justice system, and as the nonprofit continues to seek funding, it also plans to have ongoing discussions with neighbors.
“Safehouse envisions many opportunities for the public to engage in talks about the issue, from community forums to educational sessions, to conversations with city officials about everyone’s safety,” Goldfein said.
Rita Altman, 66, a therapist at Hispanic Community Counseling Services at the intersection of Kensington Avenue and Hilton Street, said that she approves of the idea of an overdose prevention site. Right now, her patients see a lot of open-air drug use, which is traumatizing to them. Altman experienced problems from the neighborhood environment firsthand after her car was stolen on a stretch of Hilton Street.
“I think it’s a good idea because we cannot fight it,” Altman said, regarding a solution to eradicate the drug epidemic. “It’s better it’s supervised. If we cannot resolve the problem, we have to accept it and rule it.”
Maggie Loesch contributed to the reporting of this story.