For the last week, I’ve watched neighbors, politicians, and everyday Philadelphians respond with outrage to a city-supported plan to place a supervised injection site in South Philadelphia, near schools, day-care centers, businesses, and homes.
I railed against the proposal on my radio show after Safehouse, the nonprofit seeking to open the site, revealed plans to utilize a South Philadelphia location without community input. When I did, calls and text messages flooded in from angry Philadelphians, as well as City Councilmembers David Oh, Kenyatta Johnson, Mark Squilla, Isaiah Thomas, Derek Green, and Katherine Gilmore Richardson. I also heard from State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.
Not all of the elected officials who contacted me expressed outright opposition to the site, but they were all upset at the prospect of a nonprofit, with the backing of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, trying to sneak such a thing past neighbors and those who represent them.
As for me, my opposition is more personal. Having been through an addiction of my own more than 23 years ago, I understand what comes with drugs. Violence and theft, prostitution and disease, death and the kind of helplessness that spreads like a contagion.
That’s why, in my view, those who advocate for such sites without having lived in drug-infested neighborhoods will never understand the visceral nature of the opposition. And that’s why I don’t believe any method of outreach Safehouse employs will convince most Philadelphians to accept a supervised injection site in their community.
Advocates say these sites, where the drug-addicted can be revived if they overdose and be offered services to help get them into treatment, have worked in other countries. They point to studies from places like Toronto that say crime does not increase when supervised injection sites are introduced in communities.
However, Philadelphians point to our own experience. We’ve lived with the gun violence from drug dealers fighting over corners. We’ve seen our children shot down in the crossfire. We’ve lived with the anger that comes with enduring crime, and felt the steady heartbreak of watching those we love sell their bodies and souls for a high.
I’ve often argued that the response to the so-called opioid crisis is driven by race. In 2018, non-Hispanic whites accounted for 76% of opioid overdoses nationally, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The U.S. Census Bureau says that non-Hispanic whites only account for about 60% of the total population.
While it’s clear that overdose rates are rising for black and Latino users, whites still make up the bulk of those who die from opioid overdoses both locally and nationally. Bottom line, this has disproportionately affected white people. And there was not the same compassion for drug addicts during the so-called War on Drugs, when black people were jailed in droves for what amounted to drug-related offenses.
But this is not just an issue of race. It is also an issue of class. Those who support such sites tend to be liberals who wield their mastery of studies and statistics like weapons against everyday people.
In the two years since I began studying this issue, I’ve seen harm reduction advocates accuse neighbors of wanting people to die. I’ve seen them dismiss opposition by saying supervised injection sites are backed by science. I’ve seen them treat working-class whites who live in drug-infested communities as if they’re not qualified to advocate for their own neighborhoods.
That’s why I was pleased when Anthony Giordano rose up to lead his South Philadelphia neighborhood in the effort to stop Safehouse from coming to his community. And I agreed with him when I heard what he told a crowd of hundreds of neighbors who came out to celebrate after the site opening was canceled.
“I wanted to send a message to whoever thinks that they’re going to open up,” Giordano said, as reported by The Inquirer. “This is what’s going to happen to them, also. We’re going to come out, we’re going to stand united, we’re going to have a positive, peaceful front.”
I don’t believe the people fighting to help addicts shoot drugs to prevent them from overdosing are bad people. I do, however, believe they’re wrong.