Safe injection site to get airing in Philly neighborhood most scarred by opioids

In Kensington, this much is clear: No other neighborhood in Philadelphia has seen more overdose deaths, or more visible suffering amid a city opioid epidemic that claimed an estimated 1,200 lives in 2017. Along with neighboring Fairhill, it occupies less than 2 percent of Philadelphia’s land area, but 18 percent of all city overdoses occurred in that small space, according to an Inquirer analysis of city data.

On Tuesday night, when city health officials arrive in the neighborhood for a community meeting on the epidemic, they’ll come armed with dire statistics and information on the city’s 18-point plan to fight the crisis. But they won’t have an answer to the question that’s roiled the neighborhood since the plan was announced in January: Will Kensington host the first safe-injection site in the city, and possibly the nation?

A place where people can use drugs under medical supervision and learn about addiction treatment is the most controversial proposal in the city’s plan, spurring furious residents into shouting matches with city officials at a similar meeting in Fox Chase last week.

But in Kensington, long considered the most logical location for a site, the meeting will likely prove even more contentious. Along with Fairhill, it has long borne the brunt of the current addiction crisis, and bears the scars of past drug wars. Fueling residents’ rage: They have yet to hear specifics about a safe injection site, and that is making the sales pitch even tougher.

“It’s really hard to have a conversation because you are consistently saying to people, ‘I don’t know,’ ” said Jose Benitez, the director of Prevention Point,  which sits on Kensington Avenue and is the city’s only needle exchange.

In the last year, after the city and Conrail blocked access to a gulch alongside train tracks, four heroin encampments have sprawled under the train bridges on Lehigh Avenue. More than 200 people live there now, sleeping and using heroin in tents and makeshift structures and sometimes openly, on the sidewalk.

Some Kensington residents say they welcome a safe injection site or anything that would stop people from injecting drugs outside where children can see them. Others have worried an injection site would enable drug use and force their community to shoulder yet another burden of the opioid epidemic.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez on Monday repeated her vow that a site would never open in her district, which includes part of Kensington. All told, at least 287 people fatally overdosed last year across the neighborhoods she represents.

She faults city officials for coming to Kensington only after they decided to allow a safe injection site in the city. “They made a decision, and now they’re coming back to talk to the community,” she said. “People look at this as an additional burden.”

Philadelphia Drug Overdose Deaths in 2017

This map from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health shows where most of the overdose deaths in 2017 occurred. An Inquirer analysis indicates that 18 percent of the deaths occurred in Kensington and neighboring Fairhill, though they occupy just 2 percent of the city’s land area. Officials are showing residents this map as they make their pitch for the city’s plans for the opioid epidemic, including at least one safe injection site. Figures and locations shown below are approximate, because the city would not give the Inquirer and Daily News the data used to generate its map, citing patient confidentiality.

Staff Graphic

Part of Tuesday’s meeting, city officials and advocates say, will simply be about dispelling rumors, including the false belief that safe injection sites distribute heroin.

Charito Morales, a registered nurse who treats people in addiction under the bridges, hears the rumors and wants them cleared up.

She’s ambivalent about a safe-injection site, but said she’d been disappointed in the city’s efforts so far. “Nobody has educated this community to understand what is a safe injection clinic,” she said.

Benitez, who will be a panelist at Tuesday night’s meeting, said there’s time yet to make the case for a safe injection site.

“This is the first round of the conversation,” he said. “There’s a way for the city, for us, to make this argument so people understand. We have to set this up as very much a medical intervention.”

That’s largely the purpose of Tuesday night’s meeting, said Alicia Taylor, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Human Services. “We’re hoping to arm them with all the information that we have as far as our strategy and what can be done and what we’re doing,” she said. “We also want to give residents a chance to ask questions, and give their input.”

Tuesday night’s meeting on the opioid crisis will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Congreso de Latinos Unidos, 2830 N. American St.