When it comes to the addiction crisis in Philly and the impact on the Kensington community, it is not surprising that there are many opposing points of view. Everyone in our community has been impacted — from families who have lost loved ones to neighbors who feel unsafe to children who experience trauma to business owners who have lost tangible items as well as customers — and those impacts have lead people to have varying, and sometimes competing, opinions about what is best for Kensington.
This was exacerbated in January 2018 when city officials announced support of an overdose prevention site in Philadelphia before gathering meaningful community engagement about it. This only worsened the divisions in our community, pitting people against each other.
Since the announcement, harm reduction advocates have feverishly pushed for the opening of a site in Kensington since so many people have died from overdoses in the area.
With equal passion, community leaders have declared “enough is enough” when it comes to the flagrant open-air drug use and sales, public safety concerns, and quality of life issues affecting their community. For many, the creation of a sanctioned place for people to use drugs feels like city officials are throwing their hands up in surrender.
During times of crisis, it can be easy to draw lines in the sand, erect new walls, and label one another as either an ally or an enemy. Unfortunately, doing so leaves little space in the middle for people on opposite sides of an issue to work together. We instead find our needs being positioned as competing against one another.
The reality is, however, that we all need to be working together.
We must ask ourselves: Who benefits when we are divided? And what do we leave unaddressed when we don’t come together in the space between the two sides?
Even though we disagree with whether an overdose prevention site is right for Kensington, we have found that division can lead to assumptions about the intent of the other. It would be easy to assume that a harm reduction advocate doesn’t care about the needs of community residents or that a community leader doesn’t care about the needs of people struggling with addiction.
When we sat down and actually listened to one another, however, we realized that these assumptions were untrue. We both care about the safety, quality of life, and well-being of people struggling with addiction and Kensington residents alike. It isn’t one or the other. And we also recognize that there is far more that we agree on than we disagree on, and that we can’t be alone.
For instance, our addiction treatment system remains insufficient and broken in Philly. At a time when the city should be removing all barriers to treatment and welcoming people in with open arms, new barriers, such as the ban on being allowed to go outside to smoke cigarettes while in treatment or being denied options that do not include medication-assisted treatment, have been implemented. We agree on the notion that harm reduction applies not just to opioids but to cigarette smoking as well, and that people should have choice in deciding on the best treatment for themselves.
We also agree on the need for transparency and meaningful community engagement. Community members must be part of the process every step of the way. Finding out about something possibly happening in the community through the media rather than direct engagement does not build trust or foster collaboration. We agree that the city must do better when it comes to decision making with and not for communities. We also agree that the concerns of community members cannot be brushed aside or bulldozed over. For instance, it is imperative that city officials and agencies work alongside community members to develop a public safety plan for the area surrounding an overdose prevention site.
Lastly, we agree that addressing the addiction and community crises will require far more than just overdose prevention sites, and that many of the solutions live in the community versus in ivory towers. If we were to allow a difference of opinion on one strategy to prevent us from talking and working together on countless other strategies, we would all lose. And we can’t lose anymore. We agree on that, and hope others do, too.