Harm reduction activists ask for a ‘seat at the table’ during City Hall rally

Protesters demanded City Council and the Parker administration turn away from its “forced treatment” approach to solve the opioid crisis in Kensington.

T.J. Erkert with harm reduction advocates at a rally outside City Hall

T.J. Erkert joined harm reduction advocates at a rally outside City Hall on March 7, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Dozens of harm reduction activists rallied outside Philadelphia City Hall on Thursday morning to protest against the city’s handling of the opioid epidemic.

Advocates stood and marched for two hours, chanting anything from, “Saving lives is not a crime!” to “Not one more!” — citing opioid-related deaths and a lack of treatment.

The demonstration comes as policymakers in City Hall have sharpened their language around “cleaning up” Kensington Avenue, while decreasing support for groups that provide harm reduction services in the neighborhood.

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“I’m sick of my friends dying,” said Destinie Campanella, a board of directors member of Kensington based group Savage Sisters Recovery. “It is absolutely devastating that harm reduction has seen this monumental shift backwards, and it’s really disappointing to see us fighting to keep things we already have when the needs are so big.”

Savage Sisters Recovery lost their lease several weeks ago. As a longtime staple of the Kensington community, the nonprofit has provided trauma-informed resources for individuals with substance abuse disorder for several years.

But all of that work could be stalled, Campanella said. Encampments along the Market-Frankford Line in Kensington and throughout the city are being cleaned out. She also argues that  policies that call for a “triage center,” which some advocates say is forced treatment or incarceration, aren’t solving bigger issues, such as a lack of treatment facilities and spreading infectious disease.

“There it’s not nearly enough to meet everyone’s needs,” she said. “And as far as public health tools like syringes and safer smoking equipment, I think that the city is going to see a major spike in HIV and Hep C and other infections and we will all feel the effects of this.”

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Sarah Laurel, the founder and executive director of Savage Sisters Recovery, also spoke at the rally about wanting “a seat at the table,” a chance to be involved in the planning process around next steps for Kensington.

“I think one of the most important things is education. We really want people to be more educated about what harm reduction in public health looks like,” she said. “And today we want to amplify the message. We want to show City Hall that we are here. That we stand in solidarity and that so many people will come together and advocate for these individuals on a regular basis.”

Not all council members in City Hall are looking to increased policing as a big part of solving the opioid crisis in Kensington. Some are pushing for a multifaceted approach to reviving the neighborhood.

For example, several weeks ago, members of the Kensington Caucus and the New Kensington Community Development Corporation announced a plan to use opioid settlement funds toward home repairs and stipends to avoid eviction and foreclosures for people living in the neighborhood.

The Kensington Planning Process, as it is referred to, has also received a strong backing from Democratic Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, who has cited gentrification — along with the opioid epidemic — as a huge concern.

But harm reduction advocate Rosalind Pichardo, executive director of Operation Save Our City, says people like her just want an opportunity to share why their work is so vital.

“We are just trying to see if there’s a possibility that we can share the importance of what harm reduction means to many people here in Philadelphia. Particularly Kensington. We’ve been losing a lot of folks out there, unhoused and with substance use disorder,” she said.

And she’s in this fight for personal reasons.

“I’ve lost so many family members to overdose, particularly my twin sister who suffered from substance use disorder and mental health and she ultimately took her own life,” she said. “We want to keep people alive.”

Mayor Parker’s administration and City Council did not offer comment about the rally at this time.

Support for WHYY’s coverage of health equity issues comes from the Commonwealth Fund.

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