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Community outrage greets supervised injection site decision in Philly

Anna Orso, Jeremy Roebuck, Laura Mccrystal and Aubrey Whelan
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA – From the outside, the hulking blue and gray former hospital building on South Philadelphia’s Broad Street looked bland enough Wednesday morning. But with the news that it will soon host the nation’s first supervised injection site, it is now at the center of an all-out battle between angry neighbors, optimistic public health advocates, city officials and the federal government.

Officials for Safehouse, the nonprofit organized to launch the facility, said that beginning next week they will begin operating their site for people to use illicit drugs under medical supervision, be revived if they overdose and access treatment in the Constitution Health Plaza on Broad Street, just steps from the bustling restaurant corridor of Passyunk Avenue. In Philadelphia, with the nation’s worst big-city drug crisis, supporters see the site as potentially lifesaving.

The concept, which opponents deride as sanctioning drug use, has long been controversial. But the way the announcement was made — just hours after a court ruling Tuesday allowed the project to move forward — and its imminent arrival in South Philadelphia, quickly drew neighbors’ anger.

Angry residents: “I got a text about this at 7 a.m.,” said Don Davidson, 72, who manages a small business across Broad Street and stood on the sidewalk Wednesday morning talking with co-workers. “You know the old saying ‘not in my backyard’? That’s exactly how I feel.”

Some residents said they worry the site will attract drug dealers and addicts to their neighborhood — though backers cite international studies showing that hasn’t happened at sites in Canada and Europe. Others worried about the proximity to day care centers and South Philadelphia High School, which is about a block away.

“How can this be a done deal?” said Jack Palermo, a 51-year-old former school teacher who owns a home at Broad and Mifflin. “No council member addressed the area.”

But as Christopher Gensel, 33, stood across from the site Wednesday morning, watching from outside a substance abuse treatment clinic nearby, he welcomed the facility’s arrival. A supervised injection site could have helped him when his drug use was at its worst and the risk of him overdosing was at its highest.

“You don’t know what’s in (the drugs you are buying) anymore,” he said. As for concerns about drawing loitering and crime to the area, he added: “I know people think it’ll bring addicts, but people aren’t going to wait 20 minutes or whatever to use.”

Outbursts: At a news conference Wednesday morning Safehouse officials called to officially announce their plans, angry residents shouted them down. Their ire was similar to that of Kensington residents, where Safehouse held community meetings last year about opening a site there, in the epicenter of Philadelphia’s drug crisis.

James Powler, a South Philly resident who said he was in recovery from drug use but opposes the site, yelled out: “This is out of control.

“We were bamboozled. This is typical Philadelphia politics,” he said. “Heroin is illegal. I have three kids. Yes, I am a recovering addict. This is affecting my life.”

City Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district sits just across Broad Street from the South Philly facility, described Safehouse’s rollout as “horrible and a disgrace.”

“It’s not part of democracy,” he said in front of the news conference crowd. A woman shouted nearby: “We are not going to give you our blessing.”

Safehouse Vice President Ronda Goldfein responded: “That’s fine.”

She later added: “We know that this is a contentious issue. We know that people feel strongly in this room. But it’s important to recognize that we also know people in this room feel strongly in support.”

Squilla’s colleagues on the Council broadly echoed his concerns. While some supported the general idea of a supervised injection site, others — including Council members Curtis Jones, Jamie Gauthier, Katherine Gilmore Richardson and Kenyatta Johnson (whose district includes the facility) — condemned the lack of community input.

“I’ve been receiving phone calls from my constituents who are totally outraged,” Johnson said.

He said he knew that the Constitution Health Center might be used for a supervised injection site, but he did not expect it to open so quickly. Phones in his office have been ringing nonstop as news spread, his staffers said.

He and Squilla are planning to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss any options to intervene.

“This is a project that doesn’t require zoning and so we have to look at, are there any other policies on the books that can actually have an impact on the site opening,” Johnson said. “But most importantly, the community should have some level of input. it shouldn’t be pushed down their throat if they don’t want it.”

Peter Zutter, president of the South Broad Street Neighborhood Association, has been inundated with inquiries from neighbors.

“I’ve never had so many emails in my life,” he said. “They want to know what can be done to stop the opening. … It’s a small facility, it’s well-intentioned, but it’s just not the right place.”

Safehouse’s organizers, meanwhile, have said they hope the neighbors won’t notice much of a change in the neighborhood after the site opens next week. They said a fast opening was vital amid an overdose crisis that has killed nearly 3,500 Philadelphians in the last three years.

“Philadelphia, like the nation, is in a crisis,” Goldfein said. “And we have the opportunity to address that crisis; we owe it to Philadelphia to do that.”

Opioid crisis: Much of the city’s attention – and conversation around a supervised injection site – has been focused on Kensington, the neighborhood at the center of the city’s opioid crisis, where people openly sell and use drugs, encampments of people in addiction line the streets and more people fatally overdose than anywhere else in the city.

And while the crisis is less visible in South Philadelphia, where the Safehouse facility will launch, the area’s overdose rate is staggering on its own: About one person a week dies in the ZIP codes that the site will serve.

Philadelphia officials have said that they would sanction – but not fund – the opening of a site. Police won’t be there to arrest drug users and the city has issued a public-safety plan for the area outside a site. Safehouse has been training volunteer escorts, like those that abortion providers have used for years to protect women.

“Our role is to ensure the safety of all involved and those in the area as well,” said Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. “Obviously, we’re all aware that there are some individuals that might not necessarily agree, so we do anticipate protests around there. But we are there to keep the peace and make sure … that all those involved are safe.”

Asked Wednesday about the neighbors’ concerns, Mayor Jim Kenney stood by Safehouse but said community outreach and picking a site were ultimately the nonprofit’s responsibility.

“It’s in their backyard already,” he said. South Philadelphia “is one of the areas of the city that has the highest use of opioids and heroin, along with Kensington and Harrowgate.”

Annie Stanfield-Hagert, 70, who lives on Broad Street about a block from the facility, said she was glad the space will be providing people in addiction a place to get help both immediately and in the long run.

“My neighbors will disagree, but I’m not particularly unhappy about it,” she said. “It may attract people who are struggling, but we’re all trying to find ways to make things better.”

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(Philadelphia Inquirer staff writers Ellie Silverman and Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this report. Ronda Goldfein of Safehouse is the wife of David Lee Preston, an editor at The Inquirer.)