In a community center in the neighborhood at the heart of the opioid crisis, Kensington residents and advocates took to the microphone Tuesday night as city officials arrived there, for the first time, to discuss a planned safe injection site somewhere in the city.
Neighbors voiced concerns that have long plagued their community: open drug dealing and drug use, the neglect during previous drug epidemics, and the decades of trauma that have resulted.
Others spoke of the reality visited upon the neighborhood as the current epidemic has worsened: An estimated 1,200 people died in Philadelphia last year, a large number of them in Kensington.
One advocate told the story of a man who had planned to come to the meeting from the heroin encampments on Lehigh Avenue. He was absent. He had died of an overdose the night before.
About 100 people attended the 1½-hour meeting, and while emotions occasionally ran high about the prospect of a site, the meeting was marked more by nuance than contentiousness. A similar meeting in Fox Chase earlier this month devolved into a shouting match.
Residents who took the microphone Tuesday night in Kensington, the most likely location for a safe injection site, expressed concerns and asked detailed questions about how it would work.
City officials gave what answers they could. But everyone in attendance seemed to be operating on the assumption that if sites open in Philadelphia, the first one will most likely be in their backyard. The city said that no site had been selected, that no city dollars will fund it, and that when a site is selected, more community meetings will follow.
“In the spirit of candor, some of the factors that will contribute to selecting a site will include looking at things like a high number of people who are using illicit drugs and the number of people who die of opioid overdose,” said David Jones, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.
“That’s this community!” a woman shouted when she took the mic. “We don’t want it here.”
But some in the room did, even if their support sometimes came with reservations.
One man called the city’s initiatives “noble” but questioned what he felt was a sudden concern over problems his community has dealt with for decades. “Nobody cared 30 years ago when it was blacks and Hispanics dying,” he said. “When it hit middle America, it became a problem. Now that an area’s being gentrified, now it’s a problem.”
Others spoke of generations who had watched Kensington struggle with drug sales and drug use, and worried that a safe injection site would only bring more of it to the community. “We’re tired of our kids being exposed to the same environment over and over,” one woman said. “I totally feel the pain of everyone that is going through the epidemic. But we don’t want it for our kids. We’re tired of the cycle.”
At the meeting, city officials said they believed a safe injection site, while not a panacea, would address some of those concerns. Research shows the sites do not increase or decrease crime in the area.
“This is not going to end drug selling on the streets and it’s not going to end drug use. It is going to save lives,” Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said.
Studies have also shown the sites increase treatment rates and reduce litter and public disorder in neighboring areas.
“What we are doing isn’t working. Twelve hundred people lost their lives last year,” said Jose Benitez, executive director of Prevention Point, who spoke on Tuesday night’s panel and runs the city’s only needle exchange, on Kensington Avenue. “We as a community have to be able to talk about really hard subjects, and this is one of the most difficult ones.”
Benitez, Jones, and Farley fielded dozens of questions and comments, from hopes the site would be open to all drug users — not just those in opioid addiction — to concerns that the city has failed to educate citizens on basic facts about the sites.
Jessica Ramirez, a treatment provider from Kensington, said she disliked the idea of the sites but wanted the city to expand access to medication-assisted treatment, the gold standard for opioid addiction treatment.
Some told the stories of their own recoveries, and their own initial ambivalence about the sites.
Bill Kinkle, five months sober, lives in Glenside but grew up in Kensington — and, years later, ended up homeless there. The father of three spoke of how he sought shelter in his childhood home, now abandoned. He found his family photos in the decrepit basement. He’s not sure if he would have used a safe injection site while he was in addiction, though he now supports the idea. His wife, Trish, cut in: She would have wanted him to go. Whenever her husband left the house, she said, she worried that he would never come back. She addressed the other mothers in the crowd: She knew it was a hard idea to wrap your head around, she told them.
“But if the safe injection site means that my children have a father that comes home to them, it’s worth it,” she said.