There is little that would otherwise mark the hulking blue and gray medical center near the corner of Broad and McKean Streets in South Philadelphia as conspicuous.

But as news spread Wednesday that this former hospital building would soon house the nation’s first supervised injection site, it quickly became ground zero in an all-out battle among angry neighbors, optimistic public health advocates, city officials, and the federal government.

Officials for Safehouse, the nonprofit behind the injection site plan, intend to open their facility next week at the Constitution Health Plaza at 1930 S. Broad Street, just steps from the bustling Passyunk Avenue restaurant corridor. They say they hope the site where people can use illicit drugs under medical supervision, access treatment, and be revived if they overdose will save lives in a city facing one of the worst drug-overdose crises in the United States.

But the concept has long been controversial. And the decision, on short notice, to open the first site in South Philadelphia instead of Kensington, the epicenter of the city’s opioid epidemic, provoked a wave of outrage from community residents Wednesday.

“You know the old saying ‘Not in my backyard?’ ” said Don Davidson, 72, who manages a small business across Broad Street. “That’s exactly how I feel.”

Some residents said they worry the site will attract drug dealers and people in addiction to their neighborhood — though backers cite international studies showing that hasn’t happened at similar facilities in Canada and Europe. Others worried about the proximity to day-care centers and South Philadelphia High School, which is about a block away. Many were just stunned.

“How can this be a done deal?” said Jack Palermo, a 51-year-old former schoolteacher who owns a home at Broad and Mifflin. “No councilmember addressed the area.”

Still others vowed to keep an open mind, thankful for a plan to address a crisis they’ve seen spreading in their community.

“That section of Broad Street is already an injection site — it’s just not a safe injection site,” said Janette Spirk, vice president of the Newbold Community Development Corporation and zoning chair for the Newbold Civic Association. “It would have been nice [for Safehouse] to ask for opinions, but I understand that’s not how these things always work. ... Some opinions are based on just not having the information.”

A tense announcement

At a chaotic news conference Safehouse officials called Wednesday to discuss their plans, emotions boiled over.

Ronda Goldfein, the nonprofit’s vice president, sought to assure those gathered in a cramped conference room at the Bellevue Hotel, about two miles from the facility, that Safehouse hoped to be “good neighbors.” The site is expected to serve just two or three people a day, she said. It will be on a floor that serves no other patients.

She was shouted down.

“We were bamboozled!” yelled James Powler, a South Philly resident who said he was in recovery from drug use but opposes the site. “Heroin is illegal. I have three kids. Yes, I am a recovering addict, but this is affecting my life.”

Later, as another woman questioned whether crime would spike in nearby zip codes, Kelli Murray-Garant, a South Philadelphian in recovery who supports the facility, answered back.

"I lived in three of those zip codes," she said. "And all of the drug dealers are there anyway. If people don't have somewhere to go to get help, they may never get help."

The fast opening in South Philadelphia was vital, said Goldfein, amid an overdose crisis that has killed nearly 3,500 Philadelphians in the last three years.

“We welcome your concerns. We want to have a conversation with you,” she told the news conference crowd, inviting them to a community meeting March 10, about a week after the site is due to open. “We know this is a highly charged issue. But we also know that there are plenty of people in South Philadelphia who say they can’t tolerate what’s happening anymore. They can’t stand to lose any more neighbors.”

Ronda Goldfein of Safehouse speaks to reporters following a press conference on the opening of a supervised-injection site in South Philadelphia next week at the Bellevue in Center City Philadelphia on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The site will be the first in the country.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Ronda Goldfein of Safehouse speaks to reporters following a press conference on the opening of a supervised-injection site in South Philadelphia next week at the Bellevue in Center City Philadelphia on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The site will be the first in the country.

A hidden crisis

Until Wednesday, much of the conversation around a supervised injection site had been focused on Kensington, where people openly sell and use drugs, people in addiction camp on the streets, and more people fatally overdose than anywhere else in the city.

The crisis is less visible in South Philadelphia, but the area’s overdose rate is staggering: About one person a week dies in the zip codes that the site will serve.

Organizers hope to open a second site in the city soon after the first one opens. Sources familiar with the decision said that second location would be in Kensington.

“In retrospect, I probably would have had the town meeting in advance of the announcement,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Safehouse board member. But he added that the site’s organizers have been clear that they planned to open sites all over the city. If the problems outweigh the benefits, he said, then they will move to another location.

“I feel sad that people are upset,” he said. “It’s an emotional issue. But we could have packed the house with people from South Philly who have lost kids" to overdoses.

Still, those assurances didn’t stop a tide of concern on Wednesday.

A frosty reception at City Hall

Arthur Olshan, medical director of the Kidney Center, which is in the same building as Safehouse, said his mostly elderly patients have already asked about safety issues. Peter Zutter, president of the South Broad Street Neighborhood Association, said he’s “never had so many emails in my life.”

Meanwhile, the phones in the office of Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, whose district includes the facility, rang constantly Wednesday.

Johnson and Mark Squilla, who represents the neighboring district, complained that they had been given little advance notice of the site’s location or its opening date.

“It seems like their whole motto was to open it first and explain later," said Squilla. “None of this makes any sense to me, whether you support or oppose safe injection.”

State Sen. Larry Farnese, whose district includes the site, added: “If Safehouse intends to operate the facilities the same way they conducted their [opening] process, we cannot allow it in South Philly and we should not allow it anywhere in Pennsylvania."

Councilmember Mark Squilla interjects during a press conference on the opening of a supervised-injection site in South Philadelphia next week at the Bellevue in Center City Philadelphia on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The site will be the first in the country. Squilla complained of the process by which the site at South Philadelphia was chosen.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Councilmember Mark Squilla interjects during a press conference on the opening of a supervised-injection site in South Philadelphia next week at the Bellevue in Center City Philadelphia on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The site will be the first in the country. Squilla complained of the process by which the site at South Philadelphia was chosen.

U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain also refused to back down. His office sued the nonprofit last year seeking a court opinion that would declare the concept of a supervised injection site illegal.

After warning that he will consider all measures available to him — including criminal forfeitures, drug seizures, and arrests — to stop the site from opening, he filed notice Wednesday of the Justice Department’s intent to appeal a favorable ruling U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh gave Safehouse this week. The filing said the U.S. Attorney’s Office would ask the court to stay its order until the appeal process played out.

But as she walked her dog outside her Broad Street home about a block from the facility Wednesday , Annie Stanfield-Hagert, 70, expressed another view.

“My neighbors will disagree, but I’m not particularly unhappy about it,” she said. “It may attract people who are struggling, but we’re all trying to find ways to make things better.”

And hours later, police were called to an apartment nearby, where a 31-year-old man was later pronounced dead. The cause? A suspected drug overdose.

Staff writers Ellie Silverman, Laura McCrystal, and Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.

Ronda Goldfein of Safehouse is the wife of David Lee Preston, an editor at The Inquirer. He is not involved in coverage of this story.