After intense opposition, the backers of a supervised injection site in South Philadelphia have placed their plans on hold, a decision announced a short while before the medical center set to rent them space said it would no longer allow the site to open in its building.
Officials at Safehouse, the nonprofit formed to open the site, said that a federal judge’s ruling grants them the legal authority to open but that they wanted to hold more community meetings before doing so. The nonprofit’s landlords at Constitution Health Plaza also cited community concerns in their decision to cancel Safehouse’s tenancy.
“Our vision for Constitution Health Plaza has always been to serve as a gateway to South Philadelphia, providing premier health care services to our community. Our relationship with our tenants and neighborhood is the key to achieving that goal," said Anthony Campisi, a spokesperson for Constitution Health Plaza, 1930 S. Broad St., adding that the health center initially offered space to Safehouse because it felt it had a responsibility to save lives.
That would appear to quash Safehouse’s current plans, unless it finds a new facility for a safe injection site, a place for people in addiction to use drugs under medical supervision, and be revived if they overdose. The move comes just two days after the announcement of the site’s opening, which swiftly drew opposition from surprised community members and politicians who panned what they saw as a lack of community input.
Some of those politicians — Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district abuts the site, and Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, whose district would have hosted the site — said they were pleased with the delay.
Squilla said that he was eager to restart discussions over the site “in a way that could have input from the community."
But Johnson said he doesn’t support any kind of site in his district. “The community has spoken, and we’re relieved,” he said.
Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement saying that, in light of the developments, “and the strong concerns voiced over the past two days, it’s clear that no site will open imminently."
He continued: “I am glad that this will allow Safehouse more time to examine its options, and to engage the community. It will allow those with concerns more time to get answers. And it will allow everyone to take a deep breath and focus on the ultimate goal of this effort: to save the lives of fellow Philadelphians who are struggling with addiction.”
Kenney said he still supports such sites and remains committed to finding a way for one to open.
Meanwhile, Safehouse organizers said they did not know how long they planned to delay an opening.
“We want to talk to folks. We heard, clearly, that people were concerned with the process, that people wanted more time to discuss it to get more details, and we want to honor all of that," said Ronda Goldfein, Safehouse vice president. “We want people to not be afraid of this initiative. We want people to recognize this is lifesaving, and I think people want to know that. But they need more detail.”
She added: “It’s important to note that notwithstanding the difficult conversations with neighbors and the landlord’s ultimate refusal to move forward, supervised injection is still legal in Philadelphia.”
Goldfein said the organization is still “moving forward” but will take a few days to consider its options. She said Safehouse still had a responsibility to save lives amid the city’s overdose crisis. Earlier this week, she said that the quick announcement of the South Philadelphia location was a critical move amid an overdose crisis that has killed nearly 3,500 Philadelphians in the last three years.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, a board member at Safehouse, said, too, that the site will move forward with community meetings and consider other locations, including mobile units. “This is never easy,” he said, but he added that similar community concerns were raised about needle exchanges in the 1990s — an initiative that Rendell himself authorized as mayor of Philadelphia.
Earlier Thursday, the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia asked a federal court to halt plans to open the site and called Wednesday’s news conference announcing the facility “a dumpster fire.”
Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh issued a ruling that a 30-year-old law targeting so-called crack houses doesn’t apply to Safehouse. In court papers appealing the decision Thursday, lawyers for the federal government wrote that the initial ruling “will radically alter the approach to opioid addiction treatment” in Pennsylvania without input from federal medical authorities or state legislators, and that neighbors deserve an appellate court’s weighing in.