Share a jail cell with the gov? Rendell, Safehouse leaders organize ‘escorts’ for pending injection site

They’re following the volunteer model made famous by Planned Parenthood.

Former PA governor Ed Rendell (right) commits to being a volunteer escort alongside Safehouse leaders Jose Benitez and Ronda Goldfein

Former PA governor Ed Rendell (right) commits to being a volunteer escort alongside Safehouse leaders Jose Benitez and Ronda Goldfein

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell has long promised to be at the forefront of the fight to open the overdose prevention site Safehouse. But he didn’t say he’d be wearing an orange pinnie.

At a meeting Tuesday night in Center City, Rendell committed to volunteering as an escort for what might be the nation’s first supervised injection facility, if it overcomes federal court challenges.

What’s that mean? Alongside other volunteers, Rendell will help walk staff and patients into the Safehouse building to help shield and protect them from protestors or law enforcement agents — potentially dressed in the signature orange vests used by highway construction workers or crossing guards.

“If you’re here to be an escort, I’ll be with you,” Rendell said to the 40 or so folks in attendance. “You’ve got to be courageous and brave. But it’s pretty easy to be courageous and brave if you know someone who’s died of an overdose.”

The model takes cues from what happens outside may Planned Parenthood locations, where volunteers escort patients on their journey inside the facilities, often while being taunted by anti-abortion protestors. Safehouse leaders hope to stock the outside of the medical center with escorts round the clock — at least during its first weeks in operation.

The meeting was the nonprofit’s first escort training, hosted at the Church of Saint Luke and the Epiphany at 13th and Pine. The institution is known for its advocacy during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The on-site accompaniment is important, said Safehouse VP Ronda Goldfein, as U.S. Attorney William McSwain is threatening to shut down the site even if courts continue to rule in its favor.

“When we open up a site, we want to make sure that the participants using the site feel support,” Goldfein said. “We want to make sure the staff working the site feel support. It shouldn’t be on their backs to walk down the street, to walk in the site, and have to confront law enforcement.”

Share a jail cell with a former governor?

At its core, the training was a know-your-rights session on how to interact with cops. A handful of volunteer lawyers led the session, instructing escorts-to-be on how to avoid conflict and protect Safehouse staffers and patients.

Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director at the ACLU, laid out seven rules:

  1. Be smart
  2. Be polite (being obnoxious isn’t illegal, Roper noted, but it’s “not going to help this situation”)
  3. Don’t say more than you have to
  4. If you talk to law enforcement, do not lie to them
  5. Don’t stay longer than you have to
  6. Do not consent to searches
  7. Do not believe what you see on TV — it doesn’t accurately portray the standards of law enforcement behavior

Then she had attendees repeat a few essential lines back to her — lines she says can deescalate a situation almost immediately.

Among them: “Sorry officer, I don’t have time to talk right now.”

There were also props to practice with. Roper and her fellow volunteer lawyers handed out cards to take notes — just in case it ever comes up in court. The pre-printed stock has lines to describe an incident, plus a place to fill out everyone who witnessed it.

And yes, the escorts might end up wearing uniforms. Roper suggested they could be orange pinnies that say “I can take you to Safehouse.”

“Then you can wander a few blocks and find the people who are afraid because of the protestors or the police in front of the place,” Roper said.

For what it’s worth, Safehouse leadership is betting all this is just being extra cautious. With a court order in their favor, they don’t think the Drug Enforcement Agency will immediately roll up and start cuffing people. (A final location, or locations, is still pending.) Organizers mostly expect the feds to try to intimidate people with their presence.

Still, Goldfein can’t say the facility will operate fully without risk — there’s always the potential for arrest. That’s why Safehouse is recommending that people with active warrants not volunteer as escorts.

“We know that there’s some degree of risk,” Goldfein said. “Not just because the neighbors don’t like it, and not just because the politicians don’t like it. But because the U.S. Attorney has threatened to arrest people.”

Meeting attendees said that, to them, the risk is worth the potential payoff.

“This is the first of its kind in the country, so there are a lot of legal obstacles,” said Alex Hess, a 25-year-old Center City resident. “But I think that this could be the source of evidence for why something like this could be so helpful not only in the Philly community, but across the country.”

Plus, even if you get arrested, Roper suggested you might have some good company.

“You could find yourself in a jail cell with Ed Rendell.”

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