More than two years after the city announced its support of a supervised injection site, Philadelphia is finally getting one. The first legally sanctioned site in the nation will open next week in South Philadelphia, an area where overdose deaths are rising.
On Tuesday, a federal judge issued a final order in favor of Safehouse, the nonprofit working to open a site, solidifying his October ruling that a supervised injection site would not violate federal law. Wednesday, Safehouse announced that the South Philly location could open as early as next week.
Some members of the community — and a few elected officials — expressed understandable surprise and apprehension following the announcement. At a Safehouse-hosted press conference on Wednesday morning, a few South Philly residents protested the lack of community involvement in the location decision. One shouted, “We are not going to give you our blessing.” Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district neighbors the site’s location, called the rollout “horrible and a disgrace.”
Critics of Safehouse have a point. Community buy-in is important — both inherently and for the site’s success. On the other hand, while community inclusion in this development is important, radical solutions like that of a safe injection site rarely generate consensus — and given the overdose death rate, solutions with proven track records are required, even if they are radical.
Over the past three years, Philadelphia has lost more than 3,300 people to overdose deaths. According to a 2017 study commissioned by the city, a single site is estimated to save 24 to 76 lives a year. Considering that the most significant reduction that Philadelphia has made in overdose deaths has been of 100 lives — from 1,217 in 2017 to 1,116 in 2018 — the numbers saved by a site represents a dramatic improvement.
Safehouse’s leadership said that they intend to be good neighbors — including hosting community meetings in the first few weeks after opening. In addition, Safehouse is starting small. The site will be open four hours a day for five days a week. Safehouse organizers expect only two or three clients will use the site every day. The small scale of operation is unlikely to draw much — if any — attention.
While supervised injection sites are new to the U.S., they are not new worldwide. There are more than 120 sites operating worldwide, without a single fatal overdose recorded in three decades. Study after study shows that the sites save lives and do not increase crime or drug use. In addition, they decrease public injection and dropped syringes, a hazard to neighborhoods.
Last week, the city announced a public safety plan in anticipation of a site, expressing its commitment both to saving lives and ensuring order.
Supervised injection sites won’t create new problems for Philadelphia. They will take problems that already exist and put them inside a safe and supervised setting — where overdoses are reversed and used syringes are discarded in biohazard bins — not the street. The sky is not going to fall — but if it starts looking like it is, the site can always shut down.