Safehouse to open injection facility in South Philly next week

Constitution Health Plaza
Photo credit Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio
By KYW Newsradio 1060

UPDATED: 3:16 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Less than a day after a federal judge cleared the way for a safe injection site in Philadelphia, the nonprofit Safehouse announced that it was prepared to open one next week in a South Philadelphia health center.

Both the timeline and location were a surprise — a site in opioid-ravaged Kensington had been expected — and angered some South Philadelphia residents who registered their opposition directly to Safehouse officials at the announcement.

"You blindsided South Philadelphia," said Leighanne Savloff, a mother of two from the area. "This is unacceptable and you were a sneak about it."

Safehouse officials tried to reassure skeptical neighbors that the site at Broad Street and Passyunk Avenue was designed to save lives by preventing overdoses and would not attract additional crime or drug users to the area.

"One person a week dies in the area that the site will serve and we know we can do better," said Safehouse president Ronda Goldfein. "Our goal is to get people off the street, save their lives and get them into treatment when they're ready."

"The same concerns were raised by people in the neighborhood," he said. "'It's going to make people into drug addicts.' It didn't. 'They're going to come into our neighborhood and commit crime.' The crime rate actually went down. 'You're not going to get anybody into treatment.' Seven hundred people, in 2018, went into treatment because of discussions they had before they got clean needles at Prevention Point."

Safehouse hopes to open many similar facilities in other parts of the city.

The facility has been in the planning for two years, since the mayor's Commission on the Opioid Epidemic recommended the strategy, which has been in practice in other countries. Other U.S. cities have also supported the sites in theory, but legal questions have stopped them from moving forward.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain hoped to halt the facilities by suing Safehouse. Instead, Judge Gerald McHugh's ruling in the suit — that the sites do not violate federal law — paved the way for the opening. McSwain says he intends to appeal.

Mayor Jim Kenney distanced himself from the decision to open the first site in South Philadelphia but endorsed the facility.

"We had 1,100 people die last year," he said. "Harm reduction and keeping people alive so they can get better is important. We'll conduct what we need to conduct to make things safe for people in that area and bring in the social services to get people into treatment."

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said police would not arrest people using the facility.

"That's not our role," she said. "Our role is to ensure the safety of all of those involved including those in the neighborhood. Obviously we're aware that there are individuals who might not necessarily agree, so we do anticipate protests around there but we are there to keep the peace."

That was a contrast to the reaction of Fraternal Order of Police president John McNesby, who said he supports McSwain's appeal.

"This proposed site would certainly endanger residents and beat-cops on the street," he said in an emailed statement. "We acknowledge that the solution to ending the opioid crisis in Philadelphia is complicated, but condoning the use of illicit drugs is not the answer."

Some City Councilmembers are also unhappy. Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district is adjacent to the site, went to the announcement and sided with angry residents.

"Nobody knew about this and that's not fair," Squilla said. "What was done here was horrible and a disgrace to the city of Philadelphia. It's not part of democracy and nobody else would do this. Canada didn't even do this. Canada had support from the community. You didn't. You didn't even go out to the community. You just put it there. This is wrong. You know the only reason you did this is because you wanted Philadelphia to be the first site in this country to have a safe injection site."

A spokesman for Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the district where the site will be located, said he is not happy. And Council President Darrell Clarke says he does not support safe injection sites anywhere in the city.

Goldfein acknowledged being secretive about the location.

"We recognize this is a contentious discussion," she said, but promised to meet with the community within two weeks of the site's opening.

"We welcome your concerns. We want to have a conversation with you. We want to be good neighbors," she said, also promising to respond promptly to neighbor's telephoned or emailed concerns. 

Speakers on behalf of Safehouse included South Philadelphia resident Kelly Murray-Garant, who is in recovery herself and countered arguments that the facility would bring drug dealers to the area.

"All the drug dealers are there anyway, they're everywhere. I didn't even have to go anywhere, I'd have it delivered to my house," she said. "If people don't have somewhere to go to get help, they may never get help."