Rendering from Penn study identifying possible Safehouse locations within different City Council districts

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Updated 1:30 p.m.

While supervised injection site nonprofit Safehouse is currently sparring with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in civil court, plans remain on course to open a facility in 2019, leadership confirmed to Billy Penn.

Where will that facility will be located? The question presents a whole different battle — but addresses leaked last week are not necessarily the answer.

Already jittery about the country’s first drug consumption site opening its doors “in their backyard,” residents of Kensington and Harrowgate felt heightened tension after the Juniata News reported on Thursday that the nonprofit had “announced” five finalist locations in the area.

However, those published locations represented just a fraction of potential sites identified through a new geographic feasibility study, according to Safehouse Vice President Ronda Goldfein.

“Some may work, some may not work,” Goldfein said of the locations in the study, conducted by researchers at UPenn’s Injury Science Center. “There’s a whole lot that still has to happen. This [research] is just one piece of information we’re using.”

Safehouse leaders have looked at about two dozen sites in total — some identified by Penn researchers, others identified by neighborhood residents or simply driving around. At the moment, it remains unclear how the organization would proceed with acquiring such a facility.

“We could buy a building, we could rent a building,” Goldfein said. “We could put a trailer on a vacant lot.”

The 1800 block of E. Hilton Street has been IDed as one of several possible locations for Safehouse.

District lines and political ties

Longterm plans involve opening at least three supervised injection sites across the city, but the first will undoubtedly land in the Kensington area. A draft of the Penn study reviewed by Billy Penn identified three blocks where a possible brick-and-mortar location might work for Safehouse’s initial facility.

The researchers’ algorithm based the picks on a number of restrictive planning factors — the facility cannot be within 1,000 feet of a school. Nearby daycares, parks, alcohol distributors and police/fire stations are also a no-go.

Another factor that appears to have been taken into account: requisite support from City Council. While still in the heart of the city’s opioid crisis, the three sites all fall within a block or two outside Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s district. The councilwoman has stood fiercely against allowing Safehouse to open in her district proper, a position that is unlikely to waver in a tough re-election year.

The study didn’t identify specific brick-and-mortar properties — just general block numbers. But sources say one of the pitched sites on 1800 block of E. Hilton Street has a political tie to Safehouse leadership.

Real estate records show only three parcels on this narrow one-way backstreet at Kensington and Allegheny. One of them is owned by a family trust connected with the Philadelphia Suburban Development Corporation. The family-run real estate firm became an early investor at K&A with working ties to former Gov. Ed Rendell, who is now Safehouse’s biggest political champion.

Goldfein acknowledged she had met with the owner of the Hilton Street property, but said she didn’t know the owners of any of the other prospective sites. PSDC did not return a request for comment.

Taking the neighborhood to Toronto

Nationwide, critics worry supervised injection sites will produce a honeypot effect that would attract more drug dealing and its attendant woes around the location. Studies have shown supervised consumption sites in other countries had no significant impact on drug-related crime, and are more likely to decrease public drug use and overdose deaths.

At the moment, Kensington and Harrowgate neighborhood groups remain opposed to a facility in the area.

Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district is the new target for the site, has been open to facilitating conversations — which so far have been limited. Part of the misunderstanding over the “announced” site locations was amplified by the fact that Safehouse leadership has yet to meet with neighborhood civic groups.

Impact Services, a social service agency nonprofit, says it supports the idea of a drug consumption site in the neighborhood. But not on the commercial corridor of Kensington Avenue or in the surrounding residential neighborhoods.

“We support a site in a medical setting like Temple Episcopal,” said Impact CEO Casey O’Donnell, “where a host of services can be offered and more robust research can be conducted to figure out what is actually effective in both keeping people alive and moving them towards recovery.”

More conversations will happen soon, both in the 19134 zip code — and hundreds of miles away.

Safehouse is hosting a trip to Toronto this week to visit existing injection facilities in the Canadian city. City Council members and some staffers are going, along with O’Donnell and Shannon Farrell-Pakstis, leader of the Harrowgate Civic Association. The trip is being funded by the Scattergood Foundation and an “anonymous family foundation,” per Goldfein.

Farrell-Pakstis said that even if the trip assuages her own concerns about a drug consumption site, her neighbors will remain opposed and she’ll stand with them.

“We know they’re not going to change their minds overnight,” Goldfein said, “but I applaud all of them for their willingness to have an open mind.”

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...