Like so many meetings on supervised injection sites that came before it, a Wednesday morning press conference held by the leaders of Safehouse quickly devolved into a shouting match.
This one held more urgency: it was to formally announce that the nonprofit had settled on a location for its long-planned overdose prevention facility — and that, thanks to a Tuesday ruling from a federal judge, it would open in South Philly next week. When it does, it will be the first supervised injection site in the U.S.
“People die of overdose every day in Philadelphia,” said Safehouse VP Ronda Goldfein. “We are compelled to act… This is a time-tested, evidence-supported initiative.”
More than 1,000 people suffered fatal overdoses in Philly in 2018, more than triple the number who died by homicide. Mayor Kenney, whose administration supports the sites but is not providing any funding, estimated the initiative could save between 25 to 76 lives a year.
That didn’t deter a handful of South Philly neighbors from expressing fury when they showed up to the meeting at the office of former Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell, a Safehouse board member.
Chief among their concerns: The nonprofit never once held a community meeting to warn the neighborhood that this was coming.
“You blindsided us, you blindsided South Philly,” said Leighanne Savlof. “You never came into our community. You never talked to us. You don’t come to our meetings. When we had a meeting about crime, where were you?”
Most had assumed Safehouse would choose to locate its first site in Kensington, which is considered the epicenter of the city’s addiction epidemic. There were several community meetings on the topic there, plus published research into the level of support in the neighborhood.
James Powler, another South Philly resident who’s four years into his own recovery from drug addiction, echoed the sentiment: “We were bamboozled. This is typical Philadelphia politics.”
Safehouse leader: South Philly neighborhood sees a fatal OD each week
The new site is expected to open inside the Constitution Health Plaza at Broad and McKean.
Goldfein said they chose that specific area because one person dies from an overdose there each week — and because they don’t yet have enough money to open as robust a site as they want to in Kensington.
Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district begins directly across Broad from the planned site, also showed up to the meeting. He lambasted the Safehouse board for getting so far into the planning process without informing any elected officials.
“Whether you support the site or oppose the site, what was done here was a disgrace,” Squilla said.
Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, whose district contains the actual South Philly site, is also concerned about the lack of community outreach.
“The recommended site location is home to a senior center, a day care center and is within 500 feet from a school,” Johnson said in a statement. “The process of informing the community about this possible safe injection site opening has not been transparent and there needs to be significant community input and discussions with community leaders and residents.”
Some neighbors in attendance said that for them, Rendell’s involvement with this project has ruined his reputation.
“Look at us when we tell you, Mr. Rendell, you were a sneak,” Savlof said. “I will not call you governor because you are no longer governor, you’re a sneak.”
Rendell said the backlash reminded him of when he gave the green light to the city’s first needle exchange.
“If I could flashback some 28 years, the same concerns were raised by people in the neighborhood when we authorized Prevention Point,” Rendell said. “The same concerns, that it’s going to make people into drug addicts. It didn’t.”
He noted that in the three years following the advent of Prevention Point, the crime rate in the immediate neighborhood actually decreased.
Because Safehouse will be located inside an existing medical center, Rendell added, he wouldn’t be surprised if neighbors barely noticed its existence.
Any lines to enter the supervised injection area are expected to form inside the building, not trailing down the block. There will also be public bathrooms inside. On their way out, patients will be searched by Safehouse staff for any dirty needles or litter. Both will be confiscated and thrown away before people are allowed to leave, Rendell said.
If any residents have specific complaints once the site opens, Goldfein said, there will be a hotline number they can call to report issues. She promised staff would respond to each complaint within eight hours.
“The fears and the worries are not substantial,” Rendell said. “And the upside is tremendous.”
WHYY’s Tom MacDonald contributed reporting.