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With safe injection sites, Philadelphia demonstrates a bold kind of leadership | Mike Newall

Today, the city is showing it's no longer just reacting to this opioid crisis. It's seeking to lead in a new way.

Nancy Davis, left, hugs her daughter, Darlene,  as she holds a photo of her sister, Valerie, at a vigil at McPherson Square in Philadelphia on August 31, 2017. Valerie Davis died of a drug overdose at  22 in 2004.
Nancy Davis, left, hugs her daughter, Darlene, as she holds a photo of her sister, Valerie, at a vigil at McPherson Square in Philadelphia on August 31, 2017. Valerie Davis died of a drug overdose at 22 in 2004.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

When I think about the people I've met in Kensington over the last eight months, the people who've opened up to me about their addiction, about their lives, talking to me from the cardboard mattresses and train bridges and alleyways and library lawns where they live, I think about the ones I haven't seen in a while.

I think about how many of them by now are dead.

I hate to think of what the answer would be. The numbers alone tell me the odds are against them. In Philadelphia last year an estimated 1,200 people died of overdoses, so many of them in Kensington. I can't get past that number. How can any of us?

Today, the city has announced its courageous decision to try to prevent as many more deaths as possible. Philadelphia will support the opening of safe injection sites in Philadelphia.

It's a testament to how far the city has come in a year – if a safe injection site opens here, Philadelphia would be the first in the country to take this step – but also an undeniable marker of how far we still have to go.

Any safe injection site must be part of the long-term solution that keeps people alive and builds on treatment and prevention options that can finally stem the crisis. Because what America is coming to understand – as so many countries already have – is that these sites are a path to treatment, an opportunity to connect with people once written off as unreachable. We're realizing that the dependence on opioids is so strong, and the drug so lethal, that it all boils down to a few simple questions: How much do we value human life? What are we willing to do to save people? And if we do nothing, how do we live with ourselves?

The librarians at McPherson Square showed us the way. This summer, catastrophe camped on their lawn – at one point a person was overdosing outside their building every day – and instead of closing their doors, they ran out through them, with Narcan. The librarians rushed out those doors not just to save a life – but because they also wanted to spare their neighborhood, the kids who lived nearby and should have been playing in that park, instead of seeing all those overdoses on the streets.

Today, the city is showing it's no longer reacting to this crisis. It's seeking to lead – and it must (even though the mayor was not at Tuesday's announcement — and should have been — he did offer full-throated support for the plan).

It's time to think about lending city funds to the sites instead of just helping. It's far past time to have the broader conversation about Kensington – about the neglect and institutional racism that made it the perfect place for a drug crisis to take root. It's time to dispel the myths – to make plain the real-world evidence from elsewhere that safe injection sites cut back on shooting up in public and ease the trauma of neighborhoods that witness it daily.

And you don't have to look hard to find the best argument for safe injection sites. Stop by Lehigh and Kensington, where there's a heroin encampment across the street from an elementary school. Talk to the people living there on the cold concrete. They will argue for a safe injection site just the way advocates do — not because they're looking for an all-day party, but because they'd rather be anywhere else in the world than shooting heroin in front of children.

But the reality is, now, that we're a city where a heroin encampment blossoms in front of an elementary school, and we've decided that's not acceptable. That's not who we are. We decided to lead.

I know this decision comes too late for some of the people I met in passing this summer. And I know it's too late for my own brother who died of a heroin overdose years ago. But nearly all of the people I talk to, who agree to share their stories – from families drowning in loss, to my own parents, to people suffering in addiction themselves – ended our conversations with the same simple hope: "If it saves one life."

That's why they told their stories. To hold up a crisis. To spur action out of needless loss. To save lives.

This will save so many. And I'm proud of my city for it.