For a brief, roughly 24-hour period last week, Philadelphia was set to become the first city in the United States to open a safe injection site. It all started at a Wednesday morning news conference, when Safehouse co-founder Ronda Goldfein and former Gov. Ed Rendell told reporters about their plans to have Safehouse’s very first site open the following week at South Philly’s Constitution Health Plaza at Broad and McKean.
Rendell said that Safehouse’s goal was to save lives. Anticipating blowback from the community, Rendell said that the downsides of safe injection sites were “very small.” Studies have shown that safe injection sites don’t increase crime, he argued, just like when Prevention Point didn’t after it came to Kensington in the early ‘90s. In fact, crime rates decreased over the next three years, he said. Additionally, people who use the site would have their syringes and paraphernalia confiscated before they leave, so they wouldn’t litter the street. But Rendell’s argument didn’t work.
“You snuck it in,” a resident yelled at Rendell at the news conference. “You blindsided us…this is unacceptable and you were a sneak about it.”
The resident’s opposition to the lack of community input was echoed by many local politicians.
City Councilman Mark Squilla, who was present, agreed.
“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.”
Squilla added: “The only reason why you did this is because you wanted Philadelphia to be the first [city to have] a safe injection site.”
In the ensuing hours, more local politicians piled on. Many local politicians didn’t necessarily say they were against safe injection sites, but rather that they had concerns about the lack of community involvement.
“We have serious concerns about the lack of community involvement in this process,” read a statement put out by state Reps. Maria Donatucci, Jordan Harris and Elizabeth Fiedler on Wednesday afternoon. “Our offices have received numerous calls from constituents who were blindsided by this announcement. They have valid questions and concerns and they deserve the chance to discuss them.”
State Sen. Larry Farnese, who supports safe injection sites, said that “trust has been lost” in Safehouse because of their lack of solicitation of community input. He called it a “bait and switch.”
“If Safehouse believes it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission, we will prove them wrong,” he said. “Operations that claim to provide a safe medical environment for clients should face at least as much state scrutiny as bars, casinos or racetracks. To allow otherwise is reckless and opens the door for bad-faith actors across the city to do the same.”
Farnese’s opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary, Nikil Saval, was one of the lone supporters of Safehouse’s opening in South Philly.
“I support overdose prevention sites, I support the opening of Safehouse in South Philadelphia, and I support harm reduction advocates in their work to recognize the humanity of people who use drugs,” said Saval’s statement about Safehouse opening. “As a candidate for state senate in the First Senatorial District, I categorically oppose any legislative, or rhetorical, attempts to pre-empt or prevent the opening of Safehouse; I am also against any state preemption of Philadelphia’s or any other city’s ability to open such sites.”
But the very next day, Saval and other supporters of Safehouse were delivered the bad news.
A statement put out by Mayor Jim Kenney revealed that Safehouse had “voluntarily delayed” opening the safe injection site. Soon after, the building owner “alerted the City that he was no longer interested in moving forward with the lease.”
Kenney is a noted supporter of safe injection sites. Despite that, he said he was glad Safehouse would be allotted “more time to examine its options, and to engage with the community.”
“It will allow everyone to take a deep breath and focus on the ultimate goal of this effort: to save the lives of fellow Philadelphians who are struggling with addiction,” he said. “I remain committed to moving forward in a deliberate, thoughtful, and collaborative way to open a site that will save lives.”
Those in opposition to the safe injection site held something of a victory rally at the corner of Broad and McKean streets on Sunday.
“Our voice was heard,” said Councilman David Oh to those in attendance at the rally. “Whatever they think the good of it is, they gotta get your opinion.”
An ordinance introduced by Oh on Thursday seeks to do just that. The ordinance seeks to mandate that any plans to operate a safe injection site are to be “publicized to every resident,
business, and institution within a one mile radius of the proposed location at least six
months prior to [the] planned operation of [the] site.” The ordinance also mandates at least one public hearing to be held three months prior to its opening, and that 90 percent of residents, businesses and institutions within the 1-mile radius of the facility must approve of the site before it opens.
“This was done very secretly [and] I believe it was done intentionally so that the public could not have input,” said Oh at the rally.
State Sens. Anthony H. Williams and Tina Tartaglione are introducing similar legislation at the state level.
“I am deeply troubled by the unnecessary confusion, fear and anxiety caused by Safehouse’s lack of transparency surrounding its location for a supervised injection site. An entire community in South Philadelphia was blindsided when the news broke that a site had been chosen,” Williams said. “I have proposed legislation along with Sen. Tartaglione that would bring needed transparency to the conversation surrounding supervised injection sites in Pennsylvania. It empowers local communities and local governments to provide input and ensures safety and security for all.”
The bill would require three public input hearings before any decisions about a supervised injection site are made and mandate the facility submit a proactive and comprehensive community safety plan developed alongside local law enforcement.
“We cannot overcome the opioid crisis or advance community health by pursuing policies and programs that largely ignore the community,” Tartaglione said. “The legislation proposed by Sen. Williams and me – Senate Bill 933 – would guarantee community input by mandating public hearings and by requiring operators to develop proactive and comprehensive community safety plans. Our bill would force organizations to take neighbors into consideration before establishing safe-injection sites.”
At a news conference announcing the senate bill at City Hall on Monday, local politicians made clear their efforts to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future. Donatucci said she had been perusing the frequently asked questions page of Safehouse’s website when she saw a question about where Safehouse be located.
“Safehouse locations will be determined by community and city input, as well as data that show the areas where the greatest need exists,” the website reads. “Safehouse considers it a priority to be a good neighbor, so locations will be selected in consultation with local leaders, businesses and residents.”
“Well, this did not happen,” Donatucci said. “Nobody reached out to any of us, and there are valid questions and concerns that must be addressed. We need transparency, we demand transparency.”
At the same news conference, Williams said that Safehouse and other proponents of safe injection sites had “lost credibility by the means and mechanisms that they chose to use to move this injection site forward.”
Tartaglione said she was drafting a bill to make safe injection sites illegal in the city and the state.
“I have children walking to school and they think it’s normal to walk over a body passed out or to see someone shooting up in every part of their body,” she said. “If Mayor Kenney and Gov. Rendell believe so strongly about safe injection sites, put it next to their homes.”
According to the city’s overdose data, 1,116 people died from overdoses in 2018. Safehouse did not immediately return a request for comment.