The recreation center at Heitzman Playground in Harrowgate was packed, the folding chairs and bleachers full, the sound system straining.
Dozens of people from the neighborhoods around Kensington — the community at the epicenter of the worst big-city opioid crisis in the country — lined up to ask questions of two board members from Safehouse, the nonprofit aiming to open a supervised injection site in the neighborhood where people could use drugs under medical supervision, be revived if they overdosed, and have access to treatment.
Through the static on the microphone, people shouted the questions that have become a hallmark of every debate over the sites: What about policing? What about the dealers? Is this enabling drug use?
But more than a year after city officials announced they would sanction a site, some Kensington residents’ opposition to the site is coalescing around one simple fear.
Many people who oppose the site say they want help for people in addiction who live in their neighborhood. But to open a building where drug use is sanctioned to them represents a kind of surrender — a sign that the city is willing to give up on their neighborhood. To permanently designate their neighborhood as the city’s hub of drug use and dealing.
“I think that when people say, ‘[Drug use] is already there, put the site in Kensington’ —-- when people say that to us, it sounds like, ‘Well, it’s their problem. Keep it there. Who cares about Kensington?’” Shannon Farrell-Pakstis, leader of the Harrowgate Civic Association, said after the meeting last week.
It’s a sentiment rebuffed by city officials, who point to months of sustained efforts to clear homeless encampments, house people in addiction, and clean the streets as proof that they’re committed to improving conditions in Kensington. And with the neighborhood’s overdose death rate far higher than anywhere else in the city, advocates say a site is essential to save lives.
But in Kensington, one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, the debate around supervised injection sites is never just about supervised injection sites. Over the last year, it’s become just as much about decades of neglect and disinvestment in Kensington, and about who should take responsibility for it now.
“Certainly, there’s a long history here, going back to the `70s, `80s, `90s — this perfect storm of factors that leads Kensington through white flight, deindustrialization, a dead real estate market,” said Robert Fairbanks, an urban studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on Kensington and the recovery housing industry there. “And the crack and heroin epidemic have all made an already desperate ecology even more desperate.”
For years, Fairbanks said, Kensington residents have felt like they had no voice in city politics.
“They rarely, if ever, get any sort of chance to weigh in and have a conduit to the media or to City Hall,” he said. [The supervised injection site debate "incites this impulse — the chance to use this as a megaphone, at least the ability to have a voice.”
At community meetings, residents will often raise questions that have less to do with a site to reverse overdoses and more about systemic issues Kensington has dealt with for years.
They ask City Council members when police will clear drug corners. They speak of homeless encampments that persist even after the city cleared five major camps in a year and a half; of children seeing people injecting in the streets on the way to school; of shootings outside the rec centers where they gather to debate supervised injection sites.
At a forum this month on supervised injection sites hosted by the radio host and Inquirer columnist Solomon Jones, a local pastor asked when the city planned to apologize for the mass incarceration that decimated Kensington during the crack epidemic.
It’s a reckoning long overdue for a neighborhood that, for better or for worse, has become attached to a debate about one controversial harm-reduction measure.
“For 20-some years, the city has neglected us completely — and now they’re doing something. We can take advantage of that — a kindness from the city,” said Charito Morales, a longtime neighborhood activist and advocate for people in addiction.
She supports supervised injection sites, but believes the city needs to do more to educate the neighborhood on how they work — through an advertising or door-knocking campaign, perhaps, not at meetings where “everyone is screaming left and right.”
“They need to tell people what it is that we’re trying to stop, how are we going to stop it — and how the community can participate,” she said.
Farrell-Pakstis, who visited a supervised injection site in Toronto with Safehouse board members earlier this year, said she knows a site will cut down on public drug use and discarded needles. But she’s shaken by drug-related shootings in the neighborhood, and wants assurances from the city on how it might police a site.
“Are we more concerned with public consumption; are we more concerned with needles on the ground? Because [a site] addresses those issues,” she said. “It does not address the drug dealers.”
Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director, said that critique is valid.
“That is probably my number-one concern, that we have a firm and solid public safety plan around the site before it should open,” he said. “We also have to do a lot of work with our officers to make sure they’re comfortable, and understand how and if they should engage with the site. I don’t think we’re there yet.”
With such outcry from the community, it can be easy to forget that Safehouse is still a long way from opening a site. The organization has been offered space in a building near the El stop at Kensington and Allegheny Avenues and is in talks for a second location in Center City. But the nonprofit has not signed a lease and does not have sufficient funds to open — and, board members say, they will not move forward until a federal lawsuit aimed at stopping Safehouse’s opening is resolved.
Advocates in the neighborhood say a site can’t open soon enough. Roz Pichardo, a longtime Kensington resident who runs the crime victims group Operation Save Our City, began working with people in addiction at Prevention Point, the local needle exchange, a year and a half ago. In the last year and a half, Pichardo has reversed 93 overdoses.
To her, a supervised injection site is simple logic: Too many people are dying, sometimes right in front of her. Too many permanent residents are being traumatized by the despair on their streets. Why not open a site?
“They say [the proposed supervised injection site] is too close to the school. But right now people are using openly in front of schools. They’re using on the El,” she said. “It’s crucial we get a site to save lives.”
On a recent morning on Kensington’s Hilton Street — home to a Walgreens, the back end of a day-care center, and the warehouse-like building where Safehouse has been offered a lease — a man and a woman swayed between two parked cars and prepared to inject a dose of heroin. The street dead-ends on a block of rowhouses. A block away, at the El stop, what amounts to a robust open-air drug market and injection site has been running for months.
Discarded needles littered the sidewalk. The man, who gave his name as Fred, said he would use a supervised injection site if it opened, but echoed some of the community’s concerns about enabling drug use.
Still, he said, he had reversed a friend’s overdose the day before. Another friend had recently died by overdose.
Around the corner, dealers had been handing out free samples — something strong, almost certainly containing the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has contaminated most of the drugs in the neighborhood and is driving most of the city’s fatal overdoses.
People huddled near a stoop with the samples. One woman’s forehead touched the ground. A friend rubbed her back.
Gamalier Torres, who’s from Kensington, looked on. Just days ago, he had overdosed on fentanyl.
“Is a site going to help? Definitely,” he said. “Look at this.”