A frank discussion of safe injection sites

Thousands of used needles litter the ground at a heroin encampment in Kensington. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Thousands of used needles litter the ground at a heroin encampment in Kensington. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Tonight, in a church on Allegheny Avenue, in one of Philadelphia’s poorest, most drug-ravaged communities, I’ll moderate a forum on safe injection sites with community members and city officials.

I’m not doing so because it’s an issue of black and white. I’m doing so because it’s an issue of wrong and right.

Latinos, whites and blacks live together in Harrowgate, the drug-ravaged community where Safehouse, a non-profit chaired by former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, wants to spend almost $2 million a year to operate a safe injection site.

The neighbors in Harrowgate are poor, but they’re savvy enough to know that no one would dare to put a drug facility that is currently illegal under federal law in a rich community like Rittenhouse Square.

In fact, when I asked Cynthia Estremera why she thought her community was chosen, she said, “This is an act of political warfare on a community that they think is too weak to stand up for itself.”

I happen to believe Estremera is right, and I don’t think a safe injection site does much to solve the deadly opioid epidemic that caused over 1,100 people to overdose in Philadelphia last year.

But that hasn’t stopped me from seeking to put people from both sides of the issue together. Along with Councilman Mark Squilla, who has introduced legislation to stop the site, and Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, who has spoken against the site being placed in Kensington, Roz Pichardo, of Operation Save Our City, will speak on tonight’s panel. Pichardo is in favor of the site.

Others in the community will speak up as well, and they’ll do so at a church just a few blocks from the building where Safehouse has proposed placing the site.

Sadly, Mayor Jim Kenney won’t be there to hear from them. Like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, Kenney supports a safe injection site, even though the community has petitions with thousands of people against it.

Through a spokesperson, the mayor declined an invitation to attend tonight’s forum—or to send a representative. The mayor’s people say they don’t want to participate because representatives from Safehouse will attend another community forum on Thursday, and the mayor does not want to pre-empt that conversation.

Perhaps that’s true, but according to Harrowgate Civic Association President Shannon Farrell, the mayor’s refusal to come to their community is not new.

“We have tried for years to get this mayor to come to our neighborhood since he’s been elected, and, you know, we’re told, well, he doesn’t want to come to your neighborhood because you’re gonna yell at him about the soda tax,” Farrell told me in an interview. “And that was after we contacted him to come to our community on a weekend when we had five murders.  So that kinda tells you how he feels about us.”

When Miss Farrell told me that, I was stunned. If the mayor won’t even talk to the people who are impacted most by the scourge of drugs and murder, how can he ever hope to solve those problems?

Perhaps it must be left to others.

Council members Squilla and Sanchez will be there to speak to the community, as will community activists like Gilberto Gonzales and Cynthia Estremera. Those in attendance will also hear from Safehouse, through audio of my interview with Safehouse Vice President Ronda Goldfein.

State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, who is running for mayor, has also asked to attend.

I truly hope that at some point the mayor of the poorest big city in America will come to speak directly to the people in one of our city’s poorest communities.

But if that does not happen, and the mayor refuses to listen to the people, maybe it’s time for the people to listen to someone else.

Join Solomon Jones Monday, April 1, 6:30 pm for “Safe Injection Sites: A Community Forum” at Bethel Temple Community Bible Church, 228 E. Allegheny Avenue. Register for this free event at https://sisphilly2.eventbrite.com

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