Like most other South Philadelphians, on Tuesday night I learned that Safehouse would be opening a supervised injection site in our neighborhood. My first reaction was one of excitement.
Supervised injection sites are one tool among a range of strategies to keep people safe who are using drugs. Interventions like this are long overdue. Racism is the only explanation for why we have ignored or criminalized similar drug problems affecting black and brown communities. It was not until large numbers of white people were dying that we called it a public health crisis. And while South Philadelphians might not want to talk about it, we have lots of people doing drugs in our neighborhood.
My feelings quickly changed when I saw the opening date: next week. I was confused. In the days following, that decision was reversed and the future of the supervised injection site is back in flux. But I still have to wonder: Why would such a high-profile organization open without any discussion with community members? In entry-level social-work classes we teach students that we cannot just come into a community, impose our ideas of what is wrong, and then offer what we think is the solution. We might think our fancy degrees and experience make us the expert, but that is a mistake. We need to recognize the expertise of people who live in that community.
In social work, we also talk about NIMBYism; so I recognize that approaching any community about a safe injection site might delay the opening. I recognize that people are dying on the streets of drug overdoses now. Time is of the essence. But taking shortcuts has consequences. Not giving people in the neighborhood a chance to voice their perspectives leaves us blind to important considerations. It is also a missed opportunity to address myths and misperceptions about the risks posed by these facilities. Sadly, the opportunity to educate the community was just bulldozed over. It will take a long time to build any trust from a community that was left out of the process and blindsided.
Safehouse stated that the South Philadelphia site would be the first of many. Is it possible to both engage in meaningful dialogues with residents of these other neighborhoods and address immediate needs of people at risk of death and infectious disease? Are there options we have yet to explore that can also meet these immediate needs?
For example, can we make current treatment options more accessible and responsive to people’s needs? The city recently implemented a ban on being allowed to go outside to smoke while in inpatient drug treatment facilities. Could getting rid of the ban lower the barriers to accessing inpatient treatment?
In South Philadelphia, many people are using in their own homes. Could we be doing a better job of distributing needles and fentanyl testing strips to people’s doorsteps who are going to continue to use in their homes? The only way to continue grappling with these complex questions is to realize that we need to keep talking with one another, especially when we disagree.
Casey Bohrman is an associate professor of graduate social work at West Chester University.