In a statement aimed at assuaging Kensington residents’ concerns about a supervised injection site, Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday afternoon that he told advocates looking to open a site that neighbors’ public safety concerns “must be addressed” before a site opens in Philadelphia.
Still, handling policing and safety around the proposed site is the city’s job, Kenney said. City officials stressed that they are committed to supporting the sites, where people in addiction can use drugs, be revived if they overdose, and access treatment and other social services.
“This is not us backing away,” said Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director. “If anything, we’re doubling down on the concept. I want this to be a national model, and in order to do that, we have to do some work.”
Kenney wrote that he had met with community members and Safehouse, the nonprofit trying to open a site, this week, and is encouraging Safehouse to “look at other prospective sites” while the city “tackles matters of public safety.”
The mayor announced in January 2018, in the wake of an overdose death toll of 1,217 people the year before, that he would allow private entities to operate supervised injection sites in the city.
By that fall, advocates announced they had incorporated Safehouse, saying it is crucial to save lives in a city with the worst urban overdose crisis in the country. The organization’s board members included Jose Benitez, who runs Prevention Point, the city’s only needle exchange; Ronda Goldfein, the executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, who is also married to Inquirer editor David Lee Preston; and former Gov. Ed Rendell.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to block a site from opening. And in March, Rendell announced that the nonprofit had been offered a lease in Kensington, renewing community fears.
Safehouse has not signed that lease, and does not have enough funding to open. But news of the potential lease brought community members to packed meetings to protest the idea of a site. Some objected to the sites on moral grounds, concerned about enabling drug use.
Others, like Shannon Farrell, the leader of the Harrowgate Civic Association, say they understand supervised injection sites will cut down on the open-air drug use and discarded needles that have plagued the neighborhood for years. But they remain concerned about drug dealing and related violence around a potential site — and, after years of neglect from the city, worry that opening a site is a sign that city officials are once again containing drug use in Kensington.
Neighborhoods across the city have seen alarming spikes in overdose deaths. But as Kenney acknowledged that the epicenter of the crisis is in Kensington, where more people die of overdoses than anywhere else in the city, he said multiple sites should open around the city.
“We cannot open one [overdose prevention site] in Kensington and expect it to address this issue at scale,” Kenney wrote.
Abernathy said the city has no timeline to establish a public safety plan, and acknowledged that he doesn’t expect multiple sites to open across the city at the same time.
“We have to answer the question about how police officers will interact with the site itself, how we handle people who are going to prey on those addicted, and how we address some of the violence that has happened around that community and making sure people feel safe,” he said.
He added that the city hasn’t yet had enough “public discourse” on the sites, and Kenney’s statement said the city will work over the next few months to help community members understand why opening a site is important.
“Part of what we’re hoping is that we take that immediacy, that, ‘Oh my god, is this going to open on Monday?’ out of the conversation, so that we can actually have a productive dialogue," Abernathy said.
Farrell and Benitez did not immediately return calls for comment.