Gov. Wolf calls drug issue in Philly ‘sad and depressing’ after tour of Kensington

Pa. Governor Tom Wolf visits the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia, which he calls ground zero of the opioid crisis. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

Pa. Governor Tom Wolf visits the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia, which he calls ground zero of the opioid crisis. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf took a tour of the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia and vowed to do more to help people impacted by the opioid epidemic.

“We need to do more, more money, more programs, more help,” said Wolf after seeing people living on the streets surrounding the Esperanza Health Center at Kensington and Allegheny.

“It’s incredibly sad and depressing,” said Wolf after he toured the area, which was at least partially cleaned up by a large police presence surrounding Esperanza, a converted bank which has been transformed into a health care facility.

Susan Post of Esperanza says the building might be beautiful and a haven for people in the low-income neighborhood but, “getting into the building is traumatizing.” Post says workers are, “traumatized by those who are addicted living on the streets, and by the violence that comes from selling and purchasing opioids and the horrible experience that comes from actually watching people overdose before you on the street.”

Post also spoke about turf wars breaking out, with gun battles between people trying to “own” the corner for narcotic sales. “Our community is in ruin,” said Post. “I believe this is breaking the fabric of our society.”

State Senator Christine Tartaglione brought the governor to the neighborhood for a firsthand tour of the impact opioids have taken on the population. The senator said, “We’ve tried to attack the opioid crisis here … we have planted the seeds of revitalization in Kensington.” She added that, “this is a quality-of-life issue, the children cannot come out to play, they can’t come out of their homes, and this is not right.”

Pennsylvania Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs Jen Smith said there is the ability to transform the people who are addicted. “They are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, loved ones, friends and neighbors,” said Smith. She added, “They are real people and, with access to the right support and resources, can change the path their life has taken.” Smith told those in attendance they have the right to the help necessary to make the change.

Options discussed at the meeting included more money for treatment and a special drug court designed to divert people into treatment programs instead of prisons. Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said she doesn’t want the court to give criminal penalties, but rather civil dispositions. “When we re-set up drug court … these are civil penalties, and we have the appropriate carrot and the stick,” said Quiñones-Sánchez. “Right now, most of the laws on the books would make the charges that we would be using as the stick, and we want to convert those to civil.”

One strategy the governor did not agree with was safe injection sites. Wolf says he’s “not convinced” the sites would cut down on overdoses and deaths.

“I think what we are all trying to do is to make sure there are no folks shooting up, there are no folks taking opioids,” Wolf said. “How we do that is complicated and we have work to do, but simply throwing up our arms and allowing it to happen is not the answer.”

Governor Wolf called for unity from politicians in Harrisburg to provide the funding needed not just for Philadelphia, but also for the rest of the state when it comes to the issue. He says only 20% of the drug cases in the state come from Philadelphia and that the rest of the state is also struggling with the issue.

Wolf called for more resources, delivered faster, to help fight the problem, but admits it’s not a “magic wand” that will put an end to it.

Neighborhood service providers provided a list of suggestions for how to help with the problems. Those included housing for all, treatment for all, more parks and recreation centers with safe spaces for children, and more treatment centers. It ended with asking for help so Kensington will no longer be the center of the opioid crisis in the city.

Wolf closed the meeting after he said he was “Sorry for all this community is going through.” He vowed to continue working on the issue and asked for help from the state legislature to help alleviate the problem statewide.

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