SRO crowd in Kensington divided on injection site plan, united on need for city action

Demonstrators hold signs showing their support for a supervised injection facility for drug users in Philadelphia. (Joel Wolfram/WHYY)

Demonstrators hold signs showing their support for a supervised injection facility for drug users in Philadelphia. (Joel Wolfram/WHYY)

As the debate continues to intensify over Philadelphia’s proposal for a supervised injection facility in Philadelphia, a standing-room-only crowd packed a Kensington community center gym Wednesday night to tell Philadelphia City Council members how the opioid crisis has affected their lives.

Residents, advocates for those with addiction, and community leaders told Council members that the city must do more to address the fallout of addiction in Kensington. Some had been slated to speak at the Council’s first hearing on the opioid crisis last month, but didn’t get a chance when Council members grilled city officials for the entire three-hour hearing.

But before they had their chance to speak, Council members again pressed city officials to do more to get homeless drug users out of encampments where they said the latest count shows 178 people are living on the street.

Officials said they are working on a plan to clear the encampments and offer housing and treatment to those who will be forced to leave. But they said they would start by removing only two of the four encampments at first, and wouldn’t say when the process would begin.

Deputy Managing Director Eva Gladstein said the city wanted to see how well the plan worked before extending it to the other encampments. Officials need more time to open another shelter to house people addicted to drugs.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents Kensington, said the city is not moving fast enough to execute the plan.

“I think that the administration thinks they have more time than they do,” she said. “As a resident of the neighborhood, we do not have the time that you think you have to get this done.”

Others who testified at the hearing had divided opinions on the idea of a supervised injection facility, which would be staffed with trained professionals who could revive drug users who overdose. City officials say it would save lives in Kensington, though they have not publicly selected a location for it.

Resident Cynthia Estremera said she’s opposed to the proposal because she’s raising two young children in the same environment of street drug users and discarded syringes that she endured growing up.

“When you say this is best for saving lives, you’re not including our lives,” Estremera said, drawing applause from the crowd. “You’re not thinking about my children who will be exposed to this as long as we live here.”

The city has pointed to research from Vancouver showing that a safe injection site there reduced public drug use and litter from injection materials. But several residents said they remain unconvinced such a facility would be good for Kensington.

Others, including people working in the treatment field and advocates for people living in addiction, voiced support for the plan. Demonstrators from ACT UP Philadelphia and the SOL Collective,  stood around the crowd and held signs showing their support for the sites that said, “Safe Consumption Sites = Safer Neighborhoods.”

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