Rendell: Safehouse will have a safe injection site in Kensington “if all goes well”

“The murder rate soars over 300 and everyone goes crazy,” he said. “Three and a half times that many people die of opioid overdoses. We need to have the same intense outrage and the same intense anger and the same dedication to doing something about it that we have about homicides.”

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell spoke in support of Safehouse at Wednesday’s press conference. | Photo by Tom Beck

A day after Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Gerald A. McHugh’s ruling that Safehouse’s “proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it,” leaders from the Safehouse team gathered at the office of former Gov. Ed Rendell to discuss details for the safe injection site that is planned to open next week in South Philadelphia. The location of the site is believed to be at the Constitution Health Center at 1930 S. Broad St.

In the anticipation of blowback from the community, Rendell wasted no time calling out what he claims is the hypocrisy of those who warn against the city’s rising homicide rate, but not the opioid crisis.

“The murder rate soars over 300 and everyone goes crazy,” he said. “Three and a half times that many people die of opioid overdoses. We need to have the same intense outrage and the same intense anger and the same dedication to doing something about it that we have about homicides.”

According to the city’s overdose data, 1,116 people died of overdoses in 2018.

Rendell was asked why the site wasn’t put in Kensington, which is the epicenter for opioid use along the entire East Coast. 

“It’s our intention to have Safehouse in a number of areas around the city,” Rendell responded. “So I think if all goes well, we will have a facility in Kensington.”

He added that Safehouse is trying to concentrate on the areas of the city where the overdose rate is significant.

“Obviously, Kensington leads the city and the nation in overdoses, but 19148 is the third highest overdose rate in Philadelphia,” he said.

City Councilman Mark Squilla was one of many community members who criticized Safehouse for its failure to discuss the safe injection site with the surrounding community before putting it in.

“People are calling our office, and we don’t have any answers,” he said. “That’s not fair – whether you support the site or you oppose the site. What was done here was horrible and is a disgrace to the city of Philadelphia. It’s not part of democracy.”

He added: “The only reason why you did this is because you wanted Philadelphia to be the first [city to have] a safe injection site.”

After the news conference, when Safehouse co-founder Ronda Goldfein was pressed on why there wasn’t more input from the community, she said, “We need to focus on [the fact that] we have an opportunity to save lives and that the questions of who knew what when…that doesn’t get us [closer] to saving lives.”

The site, which Goldfein expects to service two to three people a day to start out, will have trained medical officials on hand to supervise the consumption of opioids and reverse any potential overdoses with Narcan if need be.

“This is not a high-volume site,” she said, “but it is an important site.”

Rendell said that Safehouse’s goal is to save lives. He also pushed back against those who say that Safehouse is enabling or encouraging people to use drugs.

“Does anybody seriously think that before someone takes opioids [they’re] sitting there thinking, ‘Well, if I really get addicted, I can go to a Safehouse and inject myself and if I overdose, they’ll save me?’ Of course not. Nobody starts out like that. So the fears and the worries are not substantiated.”

Rendell said all syringes used by people who use the site will be confiscated before they leave.

“Will it create trash or dirt in the community where there is none? Absolutely not,” he said. “The location we’ve chosen will be an indoor location. Whatever discards there are, whatever trash there are, whatever dirty needles there are will be literally confiscated before the user goes back onto the street.”

Goldfein stressed that because Philadelphia’s opioid death rate is the highest in the country and three times that of Chicago’s – the city with the second highest – desperate times call for desperate measures. Three to four people die a day in Philadelphia, she said.

“With numbers like these, we are compelled to act,” she proclaimed.

In addition to supervising the consumption of opioids, Goldfein said the site will have social workers on hand to provide information about access to addiction treatment. She said no illegal drugs will be provided, and users will have access to “a full range of services,” including physical and mental health assessments, fentanyl test strips, wound care, onsite medically assisted treatment, HIV and hepatitis C counseling, referrals to primary care and referrals to social services, legal services and housing opportunities.

Goldfein said that it’s a known fact that safe injection sites don’t increase crime.

Rendell, who compared the outrage to the opening of the syringe-exchange program Prevention Point, said that Prevention Point, too, was expected to increase crime. Instead, the crime rate went down “for the next three years…following the advent of Prevention Point,” he said.

Despite outrage from community members, Goldfein didn’t seem to think that they were representative of the entirety of the community.

“There are plenty of people in South Philadelphia who say they can’t tolerate what’s happening anymore,” she said. “They can’t stand to lose any more neighbors.”

A Drexel University study published last year, which surveyed residents and business owners in Kensington, hints that could, indeed, be the case. The survey found that 90 percent of residents and 63 percent of business owners approved of opening a safe injection site.

“This isn’t going to be a panacea,” said Goldfein. “This one initiative is not going to solve Philadelphia’s drug problem. This one initiative will save some lives, get people off the street and get them into treatment.”