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In Kensington, frustration and relief over the prospect of a safe injection site

Residents of the Kensington area - the epicenter of Philadelphia's spiralling opioid crisis - are frustrated by the lack of details on the city's safe injection site proposal. Yet reactions here do not line up neatly in us-against-them order. Addiction is complex, solutions are even more so, and in numerous interviews last week, it was clear that people here know all that well.

Kensington resident David Wollmar, who has a home and has lived in the are for over twenty-five years, walks through an area where people are camped out in Kensington, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Kensington resident David Wollmar, who has a home and has lived in the are for over twenty-five years, walks through an area where people are camped out in Kensington, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff PhotographerRead moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Laticia Rios, a 62-year-old homemaker, waved to some rowhouse neighbors in the city's Kensington area the other evening. Soon enough, people who share walls and worries were arguing about the neighborhood's newest controversy: a proposed city-sanctioned safe injection site for people in addiction.

With a skyrocketing overdose rate — an estimated 1,200 people in the city died of drug overdoses last year — advocates say the sites could help save lives. But on Rios' block, residents of this long-neglected neighborhood doubted the plan would help.

"That place would be an open invitation for people to get high," said Nikki Rosario, 35, a newlywed who works as an administrative assistant in the city.

"And more people will come here to do it," said Victor Rodriguez, 63, a retired accountant on a block whose residents have negotiated to keep drug dealers away, and so don't want their street identified. "Everybody's scared of that."

Just blocks away, some parents fetching their children from school voiced similar fears. Others were open to the idea.

Ebony Smith's 5-year-old son has watched his mom dial 911 to report a person overdose on the street, and waited with her for help to arrive. She's OK with  a site in Kensington — if it's not the only one in the city.

"We don't want to get stuck with it," she said. "The site is cool. It's good they won't be outside — you can at least offer them [treatment] options."

Residents of this area — the epicenter of the crisis in  Philadelphia, which has the highest overdose death rate of any major American city — say they've shouldered a heavy burden already. They are frustrated they have few details on the sites, where people would be able to use drugs under medical supervision, be revived if they overdose, and access treatment and other services.

Philadelphia would be the first U.S. city with an officially sanctioned site. No specific locations have been identified, other than to say they need to be close to people in addiction.

And that list would be led by Kensington, which draws people in addiction from several states – many of them white interlopers  in a community deserted long ago by white residents – who camp out under bridges and in abandoned buildings.

It is a community where people remember an earlier drug plague, one where people of color were sent to prison, not cared for with safe injection sites.

Yet reactions here do not line up neatly in us-against-them order. The one unifying belief: Whatever else happens, Kensington needs much more than a safe injection site.

Jessie Alejandro-Cruz, director of Mothers Mission, a local advocacy group, was checking on the well-being of drug users with her friend Charito Morales, a nurse and activist. She wants something different for the community than sanctioned places to inject drugs. "We've suffered enough. Kensington doesn't deserve this."

Sterling Johnson, a member of another helping group, the Save Our Lives Collective, believes a site could be the start of investing in the community to address the harm that has been done in the past to Kensington.

"We will be here again if we don't take that context into account," said Johnson, whose group distributes clean needles and food and provides wound care.

"The racist drug laws of the 1970s are still here. [Safe injection sites] are the beginning of unraveling that."

Protecting the children

At Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Elementary School on Thursday afternoon, parents walked up Lehigh Avenue to get their kids.

On the south side of the avenue sits the school playground. On the north side, heroin users have set up tents and mattresses and cardboard shelters under a train bridge, a camp that sprang up after the city and Conrail blocked access to the notorious — but hidden — trackside zone known as El Campamento.

Some parents take the long way around to avoid the bridge camp, or tell their kids not to look out the car windows. Meanwhile, people in the encampment call out, "Kids on the block!" as a warning not to shoot up in sight of children walking by.

"It's next to a school," emphasized Jose Santana, waiting for his daughter outside Visitation. He was not convinced by public health officials' evidence that safe injection sites in other countries have cut down on public injections and the piles of discarded needles that litter these streets.

Inside the office, Lourdes Terreforte, the parish secretary, sighed. Her son, who's 34, has been addicted to heroin for three years and is in prison.

She understands that a safe injection site would likely decrease public drug use. But she can't get past the idea of a city-sanctioned space to use drugs, even in a neighborhood where drug use is already so visible: "That's giving them more right to shoot up heroin."

But Marilyn Montes, who has two children at Visitation, said she supports the idea. Last year, she said she called the city for months about an abandoned house on her block where people were using drugs, and a man eventually died of an overdose.

To her, a safe injection site "is fine," she said. "I think that's better than having them out there in the street."

A library gets back to the books

Last summer, the lawn of the McPherson Square library was the closest thing to a safe injection site in Philadelphia. Young people set up camp outside the historic building just beyond the El tracks above Kensington Avenue, using heroin on the lawn. When they overdosed, the librarians would rush outside with Narcan.

"It was a pseudo safe injection site," said librarian Chera Kowalski, who saved six people on the lawn last summer. "But we were a space that also had kids and families — a community space. It was an exhausting balance."

These days, thanks to an extended police presence, the lawn is quiet. A mother played with her children on the gleaming new playground outside; residents tapped at computers and asked Kowalski for help scanning library cards inside.

She was relieved, she said, that the city had announced plans to open a site. But much more needs to be done.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there," she said. "You have to assure the community that this is going to impact the quality of life. They can't just make this choice and assume people understand. They can't [only] speak to audiences who already agree with it."

Two pastors, two viewpoints

The Rev. Richard Harris, pastor at Firm Hope Baptist Church on Auburn Street, is a member of the neighborhood group Somerset Neighbors for Better Living, which has been organizing street cleanups around Kensington. Many in his group are adamantly opposed to a safe injection site.

"You're going to a street dealer to buy drugs and to a government site to do it?" he said. "My mind just can't wrap around it right yet."

Yet he's coming around.

"At the end of the day, I have to put my personal feelings aside and support the safe site, because the drug usage is going to continue," he said. "And I see the need, of trying to save a life."

Juan Marrero, pastor of Christ Centered Church on North Broad Street, offers another perspective: that of a man in recovery from cocaine addiction.

"An injection site may keep users off the street, but my faith tells me it may contribute to addiction," said Marerro. "For me, that's confliction, brother."

Like a lot of people, Marerro is stunned by the irony that a once-white neighborhood that rioted in the 1960s because brown and black people moved in could be asked to accommodate injection sites for white drug users.

"We're one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation, and we have white addicts from Oregon panhandling," Marerro said. "It's a dynamic I've never seen before. Still, that people here give money shows the hospitality they have."

In addiction, wanting a way out

Under a Conrail bridge on Emerald Street, 15 tents and 10 mattresses were lined against the cold wall. It's an impromptu setup that feels more permanent by the day, where the denizens stuff foil roasting pans into the sewer to keep rats from overrunning them as they sleep. In the camps on Lehigh Avenue — there are two more under the bridges on Frankford Avenue and Kensington Avenue — more than a dozen people in addiction said they supported having a safe injection site.

There was an outlier: Jessica Bradshaw, 40, pushing her blond hair out of her eyes as she plopped onto a discarded office chair, said she needed a "place to get my [stuff together], not a place to shoot up — why not build a shelter?"

Shannon Hurley, walking by, said she and her husband left their house in Wilmington on Dec. 29 to celebrate his birthday and had been in Kensington ever since. The 39-year-old mother of two children, aged 20 and 19, said that she'd be in favor of an injection site, simply for the safety it would provide.

Others said they would welcome the medical supervision. "I wouldn't destroy my veins," said Marlyn Glover, referring to the dangerous abscesses that drug use can create.

Many spoke of not having to inject publicly, especially in front of children.

And it would save their lives, they said.

"It's better than sitting out here," said a woman named Tonya, who has lived in a tent on Kensington Avenue for several months. "People are going to do it anyway. And so many people have died already."

Some, she said, were her friends.