At the Kensington/Fairhill community forum on the city's opioid response, a resident asks a question; DBHIDS' David Jones speaks

Not all community forums on Philly’s proposed injection site are destined to be incendiary, a Tuesday night meeting with Kensington and Fairhill neighbors proved.

To review the Mayor’s Opioid Task Force’s 18 recommendations and to address head-on residents’ concerns about the possibility of opening comprehensive user engagement sites (CUES), also known as supervised injection facilities, the city has been hosting community forums throughout the city.

Last week’s meeting in Northeast Philadelphia — which was also livestreamed to people listening under a bridge underpass — became fiery, with a drumroll of testimony of “not in my backyard,” according to those who attended.

This week’s discussion met with a more mixed response.

Wednesday’s forum at Congresso, which offers everything from family and housing services to health promotion and wellness, was packed with residents both in favor of and opposed to the possibility of CUES, where those with substance-use disorders could inject drugs under medical supervision and receive other services.

But it never veered out of control — something officials gratefully welcomed.

“I don’t fault any community for being concerned,” said Roland Lamb, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS). “I think that that shows that they care. And so hopefully we can channel that kind of concern into meaningful dialogue.”

Residents line up to ask questions at the forum Credit: Courtenay Harris Bond

The more levelheaded atmosphere may have been partly thanks to how the meeting kicked off: with Ramon Cruz’s moving testimony about how he finally entered recovery.

Although he was “raised with love” in the Kensington/Fairhill section of Philadelphia, he said, as a teen Cruz fell into step with his peers, buying and using drugs and leading to his eventual dependence on heroin. But thanks to several months of treatment and living in a Kensington recovery house, Cruz testified to Wednesday’s packed room, he was able to put his opioid use behind him and become a certified peer specialist with Community Behavioral Health.

But hardly everyone in Kensington — or throughout the city — is as lucky, Philly Health Commissioner Tom Farley reminded the audience.

An estimated 1,200 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, he noted, with the numbers threatening to spike even higher this year. “To put that in perspective, at the worst year of the AIDS epidemic, 1994, we had 935 people who died from AIDS,” Farley said. “So we’re far higher than that – much worse than the AIDS epidemic at its worst.

“While the majority were white, there were a substantial number who were African American and a substantial number who were Hispanic or Latino,” Farley said about last year’s drug overdoses. “Everyone is affected by this crisis.”

Jose Benitez, director of Prevention Point Philadelphia, emphasized that the problem is not isolated to one area.

“We are in trouble as a city,” he said. “We lost 1200 people last year: four times the homicide rate. Those are our brothers, sisters, our mothers, our cousins – those are the people we are losing, our fellow Philadelphians.”

A panel of city officials answered questions about the CUES Credit: Courtenay Harris Bond

However dire the stats, many in the crowd remained unconvinced about the city’s need for CUES.

“I am against the CUES,” said Rosalind Lopez, who testified at the meeting – a resident who lives near Kensington and Allegheny, the city’s most notorious drug-dealing corner.

“I’ve been here 38 years since I was 7, and I think the only reason they’re addressing it now is because of gentrification,” Lopez said. “It’s starting to hit the outside white people, and when it was just the brown people it didn’t matter. But now that it’s gentrification and it’s outsiders from Montgomery County, Upper Darby, Delaware County — all of a sudden it’s a problem.”

Her testimony was met with applause.

But another resident, Brooke Feldman, offered a moving and opposing view — advocating for the necessity of opening supervised injection facilities. Her mother died in 1993 in the K&A neighborhood from a heroin overdose. Feldman suffered from an opioid use disorder herself, until she found her way into sobriety through a nine-month stay at a recovery house.

Though Feldman now lives in Fishtown, she hasn’t forgotten about Kensington, which she frequently visits to do outreach. She had recently been bonding with a user named Johnny, who was in favor of CUES, she said, and whom she was supposed to pick up to testify at Wednesday night’s meeting.

But when Feldman drove under the Tulip Street bridge Wednesday morning where Johnny was staying, she learned that he had just died of an overdose.

“He was just a beautiful soul who was in a lot of pain who just left this earth – and who is going to tell that he is gone?” Feldman asked after the meeting. “It’s just an example of how these CUES could save people’s lives.”