In a whirlwind 48 hours this week, backers of Philadelphia’s first supervised injection site announced plans to open in South Philadelphia, were met by furious local resistance, put those plans on hold because of that opposition, and then lost their lease.
Now, the nonprofit Safehouse is left to consider its next moves, as are those advocating to open a site where people can use drugs under medical supervision, be revived if they overdose, and access treatment.
Ronda Goldfein, Safehouse’s vice president, said the organization is mulling its next steps. Safehouse board member Gov. Ed Rendell has suggested that the nonprofit could look for another location or consider opening a mobile unit.
For now, though, speaking with community members is at the top of the list, Goldfein said.
“What we’ve learned from the rollout is that it’s important to have community conversations, smaller community conversations, so they’re meaningful and people can hear the information we’re trying to provide,” Goldfein said. “When it just becomes a lot of yelling, it’s hard to have a meaningful dialogue.”
Advocates who have supported the site said they were caught by surprise by the announcement — and equally surprising cancellation — of the site’s opening. Safehouse’s landlords at Constitution Health Plaza cited community concerns in their decision to cancel the lease.
“This whole week has been like whiplash,” said Brittany Salerno, a community outreach worker in South Philadelphia who works with homeless people in addiction throughout the neighborhood.
Salerno said she and other advocates were planning to attend several demonstrations planned this weekend against the site to hand out information on how supervised injection sites operate in other countries.
Rohit Mukherjee, a member of the harm-reduction group SOL Collective, said many activists share the neighborhood’s frustration around community engagement, and want to listen to what protesters have to say -- amid a crisis where the city is losing three to four people to overdose every day.
“Right now, we’re in no different place from where we were last week," Salerno said. “We have to keep advocating and fighting.”
Goldfein and other advocates said that in a conversation as fraught as the one around supervised injection sites, it’s difficult to know how to pitch the idea to communities, especially while under the threat of a federal lawsuit, as Safehouse has been nearly since its inception.
The cancellation of the site "is what happens when communities aren’t engaged,” Salerno said. “But we also see what happened when we tried this in Harrowgate for the past year and a half.”
That neighborhood sits just north of Kensington and also was considered for a site; meetings had been held on and off in the area for months after the city announced in 2018 that it would sanction a site. After Rendell announced at an event in Washington, D.C., last March that Safehouse had been offered a lease at a Harrowgate property, a community uproar followed, and a lease was never signed.
“Where’s the middle ground?” Salerno asked. “And the more we talk, the more people die. Whether we agree with the implementation process or not, we still need to support an overdose prevention site and stand behind that.” Mukherjee noted that it’s been two years since city officials announced they would sanction, but not fund, a site: the city, and later Safehouse, should have put more effort into engaging with communities, he said.
It’s a difficult line to tread, said Zoe Dodd, an activist from Toronto who helped open a pop-up supervised injection site in a park after a rash of overdose deaths and what she saw as foot-dragging from the provincial government. Dodd and others proceeded without permission from local government or much conversation with the neighbors living near the park. Reaction after the site opened, she said, was mostly positive.
“It’s too bad [Philadelphia’s site] fell through, that community opposition could force it not to open," Dodd said. “What opening the sites taught us is that we could save people’s lives."
Working from the tent in the park, she and her group, the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, reversed more than 100 overdoses in just a few months; now, four permanent sites operate in the same neighborhood.
Brooke Feldman, who runs a Clean Slate buprenorphine clinic a few blocks south of where Philadelphia’s site was to open, said she, too, had been disappointed in the rollout and stung by some of the rhetoric she saw online about people in addiction. Feldman is in recovery herself and lost her mother to an opioid overdose 25 years ago.
She said a concerted effort to engage one-on-one with community members confused or upset by the idea of a site is the best way to achieve “meaningful dialogue.”
“In a community meeting format, it’s the loudest voices on either side of the argument,” she said. “But there’s a difference between community engagement and full community buy-in."
Methadone clinics, recovery houses, and treatment centers often face similar backlash from neighbors and don’t require an entire neighborhood’s approval to open, she said. But neighbors should be asked to weigh in, she said.
“It’s not like everyone walks away happy," she said, "but we have had that process.”
Goldfein noted that a federal judge has ruled that Safehouse’s plan does not violate federal law, though the U.S. Attorney’s Office is appealing the decision. And Feldman added that Safehouse’s victory in federal court may spur other groups to consider opening.
“Safehouse has really taken the bold initiative to set the legal precedent — and that opens the door for other groups and organizations to be able to operate a site legally, and not have to face being incarcerated as a result,” she said.
Ronda Goldfein of Safehouse is married to David Lee Preston, an editor at The Inquirer. He is not involved in coverage of this story.