Despite Safehouse’s efforts to implement the country’s first safe injection site in Philadelphia, many members of the city’s pro-safe injection site community have told the Review that they think the city’s chances of getting a safe injection site in the near future are lower than they were prior to Safehouse’s rollout of its first planned location in late February, which was canceled the day after it was announced. Some of those supporters blame the city. Some blame Safehouse itself.
“It wasn’t handled as well as it could’ve been handled,” said Britt James Carpenter, founder of a nonprofit that promotes harm reduction strategies called Philly Unknown. “We’re trying to bridge gaps in the community, and [Safehouse] failed to bridge those gaps due to their lack of communication, which caused the outbreak of people who were rightfully upset.”
Carpenter cited pushback from City Council as proof things didn’t go as planned. A yet-to-be-voted-on bill introduced by at-large Councilman David Oh mandates that plans to open and operate a safe injection site shall 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. (Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, whose district covers roughly half of South Philly, is a co-sponsor on the bill.)
Carpenter believes Safehouse’s poor communication with the community is the root cause for why plans for the safe injection site at the Constitution Health Plaza were scrapped. If Safehouse had better educated the community about the benefits of safe injection sites prior to the announcement, they might not have rallied against them, Carpenter believes.
“I’m a realist,” he said. “To see that many people show up in solidarity against it because of a lack of communication – that’s an issue.”
Harm reduction advocate Marianne Suppa concurred.
“I totally agree that was mishandled,” she said. “I think that the community deserved to have had a voice in this matter, and they should have been properly educated.”
While Carpenter and Suppa pinned at least some of the blame on Safehouse, some others in the community don’t see it quite the same. One of them is Brittany Salerno, a clinical research coordinator in addiction medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. While she thinks residents have a reason to be “upset” and “blindsided” by the safe injection site news, she pins the blame mainly on the city.
“I think the city needs to take far more responsibility because the city backed this,” she said, referring to when health officials green-lighted the idea for safe injection sites two years ago. “I think hiding behind a small nonprofit was a dangerous move when you’re seeing the value that overdose prevention sites will add to the community.”
Salerno thinks it’s the city’s responsibility to educate residents about the dangers of “stigmatizing” drug addiction for sake of people who suffer from it. If residents understood this perspective of the opioid crisis, they might not be so quick to shoot down the idea of safe injection sites, she said.
“People are angry,” she added. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction. It makes it hard to have these conversations when people are upset.”
James Gitto, a member of Newbold CDC’s board – which services the neighborhood the safe injection site was slated to go in – also thinks that the city’s chances of getting a safe injection site have decreased in the past two weeks, but like Salerno, he pins the blame more on local politicians he thinks have valued community approval over public health. In fact, he disagrees with virtually every local elected leader in that he doesn’t think community input should be necessary for a safe injection site in the first place.
“I am not of the belief that we need public meetings and consensus for facilities that increase public health,” he told the Review. “We can’t even get Philadelphians to agree to build bike lanes, nevermind something like a safe injection site.”
Gitto, perhaps uniquely, approaches the subject from a zoning perspective. In Philadelphia, for example, somebody who wants to open an auto repair center can do so without community approval so long as the plot of land they plan to open on is already zoned for it. These are referred to as “by right” projects. This, Gitto argues, is effectively what Safehouse was doing at the Constitution Health Plaza – opening a medical facility in a building that’s already been zoned for it. Therefore, no community approval should be necessary.
“It sets a bad precedent to force community meetings for projects that are by right,” he said. “It makes the zoning code pointless.”
Furthermore, Gitto said safe injection sites are “not an issue that would be good for a public meeting.”
“I don’t think there was ever going to be a chance to get the community on board in South Philadelphia,” he said. “If Safehouse announced a meeting, it would have been a chaotic mess.”
Gitto voiced his frustrations with politicians who “acted surprised” by the news. He singled out state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler and state Sen. Larry Farnese.
“I was extremely disappointed,” he said, referring to Fiedler, specifically. “She ran on this leftist campaign and turned into a NIMBY.”
Fiedler released a joint statement with fellow state Reps. Maria Donatucci and Jordan Harris soon after Safehouse’s announcement of the planned safe injection site.
“[W]e have serious concerns about the lack of community involvement in this process,” it read. “The proposal to open the facility…while holding a public meeting to discuss the facility the week following its opening, is misguided and leading to anxiety and trepidation for people that live near the site in South Philadelphia.”
Farnese’s statement on the Safehouse fiasco included the following: “If Safehouse intends to operate their facilities the same way they conducted their siting process, we cannot allow it in South Philly and we should not allow it anywhere in Pennsylvania.”
Carpenter said that going forward, Safehouse needs to be “extremely open and honest about their plans and their intentions” in its efforts to win back the community. “They’ve got to educate the community…[the community] saying no because they don’t have all the details and all the facts. People are afraid of the unknown.”
He added that a safe injection site wouldn’t be fundamentally different from a methadone clinic.
“Methadone clinics are in some pretty residential neighborhoods because they were made accessible to those who needed them,” he said.
Salerno said that community input is an important part of the conversation that needs to be had, “but it should also be considered that your community members are dying,” she said. She doesn’t blame Safehouse, however, for trying to get the safe injection site open as soon as it could.
“I think that was a move that needed to be done,” she said, citing the high number of opioid-related overdose deaths in the city. “I think the immediate implementation was necessary, but also that community education was necessary as well.”
Safehouse did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.