Why a North Philly meeting about injection sites erupted into a shouting match

Outspoken CUES critic Solomon Jones hosted the panel discussion.

Solomon Jones (right), facilitated a town hall meeting on CUES

Solomon Jones (right), facilitated a town hall meeting on CUES

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
michaelawinberg-creditdanyahenninger-feb2018

Devin Reaves stood up in his front row seat and issued a dare about injection sites to the city councilpersons in front of him.

“If there’s something else we can do that can lower overdose deaths,” said Reaves, a recovery advocate, addressing Councilman David Oh and Councilwoman Cindy Bass, “[then] let’s do that.”

Oh stood up in his seat to yell back, but the crowd was so loud it was hard to make out what the councilman said.

The heated exchange — which took place 20 minutes into the community meeting on the city’s proposed comprehensive user engagement site (CUES) — was one among countless others at North Philly’s Mt. Tabor AME Church Friday night. Shouts and clamors from residents, city politicians and addiction recovery advocates filled the citadel for the better part of two hours.

The panel discussion and Q&A session at the the church on Seventh Street near Girard was convened to give the community a chance to explore the proposed CUES.

A few weeks ago, Philly officials announced the city would “actively encourage” a site that would offer people a safe space to use opioids (and potentially other drugs) as part of an attempt to prevent overdose deaths and engage users into treatment and recovery.

The Feb. 9  panel was organized by Solomon Jones, an author, Philadelphia Daily News columnist and radio host at Praise 107.9 who is an on-record critic of the city’s proposal.

Panelists included:

  • Solomon Jones (moderator)
  • Roland Lamb, deputy commissioner, DBHIDS
  • Councilwoman Cindy Bass
  • Councilman David Oh
  • Quetcy Lozada, a representative from the Office of Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez
  • Mike Newall, columnist, Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Gilberto Gonzales, Kensington resident
  • Pastor Michael Couch, Kensington activist
  • Louis Cain, addiction health care provide, Goldman Clinic
Attendees broadcasted the town hall meeting on Facebook live.

Attendees broadcasted the town hall meeting on Facebook live.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

As the evening progressed, varying tensions built in groups represented among audience members.

Recovery experts became upset at what they consider misinformation the panel was spreading about the CUES. Several Philadelphia residents (especially people of color) made clear they resented how the city has handled mostly-white opioid use differently than it handled mostly-black crack cocaine use decades ago.

“When we talk about the crack epidemic and what happened, we lost a lot of families,” Councilwoman Cindy Bass offered. “We lost so many people.”

“If we are going to do this,” Solomon Jones said, referring to a possible CUES, “is there anything in this being considered to help people who are damaged — their families, their communities, their properties, anything else — during the crack epidemic?”

Panelists raised a handful of additional concerns.

Kensington resident Gilberto Gonzales claimed the city never consulted him — or anyone he knows in his neighborhood — while considering a possible CUES.

Councilwoman Bass argued a CUES would give people the perception that illegal opioid use has been legalized. After one meeting attendee referred to the CUES as a “legal shooting gallery,” Bass elaborated: “The question is,” she said, “what message are we sending, and how are we going to communicate to folks that [legalization] is not what we are intending to do?”

Councilman Oh said the idea is too controversial to work. “It’s such a divisive issue that I’m not sure it’s the best thing for us to pursue,” he said. “As of right now, the population, the public, is not solidly behind this idea enough for it to be fruitful for us to go forward.”

For the dozens of attendees, many questions lingered, even after the raucous Q&A session. For example:

  • Where will the CUES be built?
  • Will dealers at the site be arrested?
  • Can pregnant women use the facility?
  • What will CUES employees do if someone leaves the facility and gets behind the wheel of a car?

The city has previously said these questions remain unanswered on purpose. Health Commissioner Thomas Farley previously told Billy Penn the city couldn’t develop a detailed plan for the CUES before finding private funders and communicating its plan with the city.

“We know that setting this up is going to require a lot of conversations with a lot of people,” Farley said in an interview. “We couldn’t have those conversations without first being clear about what our interests and intentions were.”

DBHIDS Deputy Commissioner Roland Lamb explained that he thought Friday’s meeting skipped over a majority of the city’s outreach toward people with addiction.

“Don’t get it twisted,” Lamb told the crowd. “This is not the only option that the city is implementing.” Lamb said the city is also working to expand access to other forms of care, like medication-assisted treatment and affordable housing.

The gathering seemed to leave some recovery experts with a bad taste in their mouth. Several argued moderator Solomon Jones had purposefully stacked the panel with anti-CUES activists, who they claimed were uneducated about its intent.

Supporters and opponents of the CUES both left the meeting disappointed.

Melodie Jackson, an attendee who has been in recovery from addiction for 11 years, said she would support a CUES in her South Philly neighborhood. In fact, she said, she’d support one in every neighborhood of the city.

“I was saddened to hear the anger behind trying to save lives,” Jackson told Billy Penn. “I believe safe-injection sites are needed…. That will remedy some of what the community is faced with, and it’s also going to save lives.”

Rev. Jesse Alejandro Cruz, who lives in Northeast Philly and provides outreach to people with addiction in Kensington, opposes the potential CUES. Cruz said the meeting felt like too little, too late.

“I don’t think the meeting did anything, because [the city] already has a set goal,” Cruz told Billy Penn.

“I’m upset about the whole thing because I know they already planned it, they are already going to have it and the city did not talk to anybody. They just told us, ‘This is what’s going to happen.'”