The debate around the nation’s first proposed supervised injection site in Philadelphia has reached the public opposition phase, and things are about as heated as you’d expect.
A Thursday night civic meeting at the the Heitzman Rec Center in Harrowgate drew well over a hundred neighbors, community leaders and elected officials — even U.S. Attorney William McSwain, who is leading a federal lawsuit against the nonprofit seeking to open the facility, sat in the packed gymnasium crowd.
This marked the first meeting between neighbors and Safehouse officials about the proposed location for the near Kensington and Allegheny, or “K&A,” the nucleus of an opioid epidemic that claimed 1,100 lives in the city last year.
Repping the Safehouse mission were its two founders: Jose Benitez, the director of Kensington needle exchange Prevention Point, and Ronda Goldfein, the director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. Shannon Farrell-Pakstis, head of the Harrowgate Civic Association, helped field questions to them from mostly irate neighbors.
For those keeping score, this was not a favorable crowd to Safehouse’s cause. Here are the big takeaways from the frenetic, if mostly civil, back-and-forth.
Safehouse: We won’t move forward without more conversation
Benitez kicked off the discussion with an apology for how the news spread that Safehouse had already chosen a site prior to this meeting, which both neighbors and elected officials discovered from the media.
At a Cato Institute forum two weeks ago in Washington D.C., former Gov. Ed Rendell, Safehouse’s big political backer, abruptly announced that the nonprofit was close to securing a location just off Kensington Avenue at virtually no cost. Until time, officials had indicated that a final decision remained a long way’s off.
Goldfein said there would be no finalizing a location without more conversation. She also said there are still several possible sites under consideration — and that officials were looking at the possibility of a two-year lease, which prevent the site from becoming permanent in one location.
Safehouse’s long-stated goal has been to open multiple facilities in several different parts of the city.
Residential corridor and public safety are key issues
While many neighbors bemoaned the moral implications of allowing people in addiction to continue to use drugs, the main criticisms of the night — and those that will define Safehouse’s movement forward — are the location itself and the public safety around the site.
Many neighbors said they support the idea of a supervised injection facility, but putting one in a residential area remained their biggest contention. Local advocates have pushed to put the site on a medical campus or in an industrial area that would have less impact on the community.
Studies have shown that supervised injection sites have little impact on crime rates — and do indeed reduce outdoor drug use. But among neighbors, concerns remains fierce. Harrowgate civic head Farrell-Pakstis said, in short, that Philly is not Toronto, which has multiple such facilities and where some of the studies were done. She worries the Kensington site will become “a containment strategy” where drug activity can localize, further destabilizing the surrounding area.
“They have no strategy for securing the neighborhood,” Farrell-Pakstis said.
Safehouse officials reitrated that the proposed site is by no means a cure-all solution the neighborhood’s ongoing woes as the epicenter for regional drug activity. They also stressed that the short-term goal is to save lives, prevent the spread of disease and encourage people in addiction to seek medical assistance.
“That’s more than they’re getting on the sidewalk,” Goldfein, the Safehouse cofounder, said.
Political muscle is all anti-SIF right now
State and local elected officials from the area flanked the meeting room, standing in solidarity with neighbors and drawing rounds of uproarious applause as they took shots at the proposed site. Even Democratic mayoral candidate State Sen. Anthony Williams — who represents far off West Philly — took the mic to express his ire. (His rival Mayor Jim Kenney backs the site.)
Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district encompasses the proposed site location, spoke about his recent Safehouse-funded tour of injection sites in Toronto. He said that while he has been open to the site, he stands with the community against the proposed location. He also repeated concerns about proposed treatment pipeline, citing a figure given to him that only 4 to 10 percent of supervised injection site users seek treatment in Toronto.
Other elected officials did little else but make their opposition known.
State Sen. John Sabatina spoke briefer than any other pol. He said he came into the meeting a skeptic of supervised injection sites, and he’ll likely leave the meeting a skeptic, “but one thing I’m sure of is that it doesn’t belong in the neighborhood.”
Safehouse could open anytime it wants to
The legal challenge against Safehouse remains its biggest obstacle. In a court filing this week, Safehouse argued that the “crack house” statute being cited by federal authorities doesn’t apply to a medical facility — and they’re also arguing the site is a form of religious freedom, because there is “a moral and religious imperative to save lives.”
But barring federal intervention, community opposition can only go so far.
Following the surprise location announcement, Squilla introduced legislation last week to change the zoning for the proposed Hilton Street location, which would theoretically throw a wrench in Safehouse’s plans. If the block was changed to a residential classification, conventional wisdom was they would require a zoning variance, and therefore community approval.
But on Thursday Squilla said that’s actually not the case.
“There is no zoning designation” for a supervised injection facility, Squilla noted. “If they’re going to do it, they’ll do it.”