Sure. Put the supervised injection site in my backyard.
For two years, I’ve used this column to call for the opening of a site where people can use drugs under medical supervision, be revived from overdose, and hopefully accept treatment.
And every time I do, my inbox fills up with people telling me that if I like the sites so much, I should volunteer to put one in my neighborhood.
So, after a federal judge ruled Wednesday that Philly’s supervised injection site plan doesn’t violate federal law, I’d like to take this opportunity to say, loud and clear, for once and for all, put one in my damn backyard. Or at least my neighborhood. (My backyard is, in fairness, very small.)
Some of the rhetoric hurled at my inbox, of course, is motivated by pure stigma — commenters who say, “Let them die,” to someone who’s written openly about losing a family member to an overdose. Let’s just ignore that minority.
Other times, it’s laid as a trap — to sniff out some imagined hypocrisy. I’m fine with one in Kensington, but I couldn’t possibly want a site in my neighborhood, this thinking goes. I may talk a big game about saving lives, but my liberal bleeding heart will turn to stone if the full horrors of the opioid crisis are visited on South Philly.
The horror of the opioid crisis is already here. It might not be as visible as in Kensington, but it’s killing people all over my neighborhood, people who are dying in bedrooms, in their family’s basements, trapped by stigma and shame. In Kensington, the signposts are the people being Narcan-ed in the middle of the avenue. In South Philly, it’s the whispers you hear in the deli.
We need a supervised injection site here. Though some places in South Philly are seeing drops in overdose deaths, 55 people died from overdose in my 19148 zip code last year, a 20% spike from the year before. That’s a number that in most cities would horrify, but in Philly is dwarfed by the devastation in Kensington. And a mini-encampment of people in addiction, sleeping on cardboard boxes, has bloomed at Broad and Snyder.
In fact, my neighborhood needs a lot more than just a supervised injection site. 19148 had more deaths in 2018 than all but two zip codes in the city — Frankford and Kensington, the heart of the nation’s urban overdose crisis. Still, there are almost no harm reduction services besides a van that distributes needles once a week, and the goodness of volunteers. In normal times, that’s shameful neglect. In a crisis, that’s madness.
Destinie Campanella, 29, has long been one of the few dedicated harm reductionists working in South Philly and is set to begin a job with the city Department of Public Health doing the same. She’s a lifelong South Philadelphian and lost an uncle who was more like a brother to an overdose when he was 24. When she speaks to neighbors about a supervised injection site — one that she points out, and I agree, shouldn’t land on a residential street or near a school — many go one step further than my readers and tell her to put it in her basement.
What scares her most about South Philly is that stigma cuts so deep. People are so desperate to hide their drug use they might be afraid to use a site, she worries, lest someone recognize them.
“I try to come up with ways to reach the people who use behind closed doors,” she said.
We need to talk more, as a community, about how South Philly can combat its overdose crisis. It couldn’t hurt to get the mayor down here more to talk to people directly — his neighbors too, after all.
In Kensington, a site would help alleviate the trauma of open drug use on the streets. In South Philadelphia, it might do that too.
On Thursday, Drew Raymond, who is 29, and his buddy Louie, who is 34, were posted up outside the Rite Aid near Broad and Snyder, tallying the number of times they overdosed on the streets of South Philly. Drew — once, walking beside Louie on McKean Street, literally steps from my backyard. And then getting off the train at Broad and Ellsworth. They buy drugstore syringes, inject and sleep wherever they can — alleyways and parks. Drew, a father of three on state parole after serving a sentence for armed robbery, said that he was ready to accept help from outreach workers, and that he would use a site if there was one available. But Louie, who said he battled depression, said there were mornings when he doesn’t want to wake up. That’s the level of despair on a street where a nearly dozen people sleep on boxes.
But so much of our drug use is already inside, out of the public eye. The people using are using alone. And they may die alone. They’re our neighbors, and we’re losing them.