During his annual visit to City Council, Mayor Jim Kenney was hoping to steer attention toward his proposed scholarship program for the Community College of Philadelphia and other highlights from his budget plan for next year.
But before Kenney could begin his budget address, Council chambers were instead consumed by the debate over supervised injection sites, with dozens of demonstrators from both sides of the issue packing the galleries, and lawmakers condemning how the city and the nonprofit Safehouse handled a Kenney-backed plan to open the nation’s first such site in South Philadelphia.
The plan was abandoned last week after opposition from neighbors and elected officials from across the political spectrum who criticized the secretive site-selection process and the lack of public hearings before it was to open.
But the political fallout continues for Kenney, who says he supports opening the facilities, which the administration calls overdose prevention sites, to save lives and shepherd people in addiction into treatment. Officials from his administration serve on the advisory committee for Safehouse, the nonprofit formed to open the site.
Council voted 15-2 to approve a resolution, written by Councilmember David Oh, to condemn the botched rollout and urge the city to pause planning for all injection sites. A separate bill by Oh that would make it all but impossible to open a supervised injection site in Philadelphia will be heard in committee next week. State lawmakers are also considering legislation that would ban injection sites or make them more difficult to open.
Supporters and opponents of the sites sat side by side in the Council chambers, and booed or cheered public comment speakers and Council members as they debated the issue. One woman held a sign reading, “Naloxone saved my life,” and, “Dead people can’t recover.” She sat next to a demonstrator holding a poster that said, “Hey Jimmy did you FORGET SOUTH PHILLY?” Kenney is from Pennsport.
Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks voted against Oh’s resolution, the first show of Council support for Kenney on the issue since the South Philadelphia site controversy erupted last week.
“I cannot in good faith endorse an approach that will lead to more preventable overdose deaths," Brooks said, referring to her colleagues’ opposition to the facilities.
Gym said she believes the sites should be included in a “continuum of care” to address the city’s opioid crisis.
“Every street right now is an injection site,” Gym said. “You can’t recover ... if you are dead.”
She also acknowledged the bungled handling of the planned opening of a site at the Constitution Health Plaza on South Broad Street.
“We can do better as a city in terms of public process,” she said.
Most of the demonstrators had left the chambers by the time Kenney delivered his budget address, shortly after 12:30 p.m., more than an hour later than scheduled. One woman shouted from the audience when he briefly touched on the controversy, but the mayor continued his speech.