Safehouse injection site closed due to protests

José de Marco and Safehouse supporters (2019). Photo: Laura Smythe

Just 48 hours after the opening of the groundbreaking Safehouse injection site was announced Feb. 25, a spokesperson for Constitution Health Plaza announced that the plaza was canceling plans to allow the nonprofit Safehouse to operate a supervised injection site on its premises. The lease on the site was withdrawn.

Safehouse, modeled on successful safe injection sites in Toronto and throughout Europe, which have been proven to lower the rate of overdose deaths, would have been the first safe injection site in the U.S. Mayor Jim Kenney has been a staunch proponent of the site, arguing that with the city’s massive opioid and overdose problem, it is a simple way to save lives.

But on Feb. 26, South Philly residents met with Safehouse officials, including former Gov. Ed Rendell, stating that they had not been consulted about the placement of the site. Constitution Plaza also houses a daycare center.

At the meeting, Council people Kenyatta Johnson and Mark Squilla both voiced objections to the site. Johnson said, “You can’t come into a community, make a decision such as putting a safe injection site, putting children in danger, without consulting with the community. But most importantly, the site was absurd in the first place.”

City Council met Feb. 28 to determine what should happen going forward.

Kenney attempted to mitigate the blowback from both City Council and city residents.

He said, “I am glad that this will allow Safehouse more time to examine its options and to engage the community. It will allow those with concerns more time to get answers.”

He added, “And it will allow everyone to take a deep breath and focus on the ultimate goal of this effort: to save the lives of fellow Philadelphians who are struggling with addiction. I remain convinced that overdose prevention sites do save lives — as they have in more than 100 cities around the world. I remain committed to moving forward in a deliberate, thoughtful and collaborative way to open a site that will save lives.”

According to 2015 data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, adults defined as “sexual minorities” (LGBTQ) were more than twice as likely as heterosexual adults to have used illicit drugs in the previous year.

José de Marco, an LGBTQ and AIDS activist with ACT-UP Philadelphia, said of the lease cancellation and protests, “People continue to overdose and die while politics and neighbors point out the drugs, used syringes and public drug use in their neighborhood. These problems are present in their neighborhoods now. Safe consumption is not creating these issues.”

De Marco argued that “A safe consumption facility will eliminate many of the problems by taking it indoors away from the public,” adding, “Drug users will receive immediate referral to treatment if they want it — medical care and social services. A win-win situation for everybody.”

De Marco said that “without safe consumption, the deaths will increase, as will the problems with discarded paraphernalia.” 

The plaza announcement of the lease cancellation prompted still more protests from neighborhood residents and other Philadelphians. On March 1, a rally of over 1,000 people was held outside the site, with protesters arguing that there is no place in Philadelphia that is safe for such a program.

On March 2, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a longtime foe of Kenney, held a press conference with State Sen. Tina Tartaglione. Williams argued for legislation he had proposed last October. Williams’ bill would require “at least three public input community meetings,” that drug use be done under “observation by appropriate medical professionals,” and a “proactive and comprehensive community safety plan.”

There are no explanations in the bill nor from Williams on what constitutes a “public input hearing.” Who qualifies as a “medical professional,” and what makes a plan “comprehensive” is not defined, either.

Proponents of Safehouse argue that Williams’ bill would ultimately criminalize such sites and those using them with stiff sentences up to 20 years. Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner have been working to decriminalize drug use in Philadelphia, particularly personal-use marijuana and to take a public health and medical intervention approach to personal use opioids.

In response to Williams’ press conference, Kenney told PGN, “The effort to introduce overdose prevention sites is about saving the lives of individuals suffering from substance use disorder, and this legislation attempts to criminalize this effort unless a certain political process is followed and approved.”

Kenney emphasized that lives were at stake. “While we support the need for additional community engagement, the reality is that if we are to consider substance use disorder the disease that it is, we must allow opportunities for those suffering to come out of the shadows so that we can ensure they live long enough to get better,” he said. “Overdose prevention sites will not solely resolve this crisis, but I would implore elected officials to talk to people who have lost loved ones to this disease, and be willing to look parents in the face and say they opposed this when it could have possibly saved their child’s life.”

De Marco takes the stance ACT-UP once took on AIDS deaths — the opioid crisis is a public health emergency that demands a public health response and safe injection sites are a proven aid in that effort.

De Marco said, “Mayor Kenney and Health Commissioner Farley must declare a medical emergency that requires a medical intervention. Safe consumption should be put in every city public health center.”

De Marco noted that the efforts to decriminalize IV drug use has a long history. “Sterile syringe exchange happened because of an executive order by [then] Mayor Rendell,” he said.

Rendell signed the executive order on July 27, 1992, authorizing a citywide needle exchange program whereby IV drug users could exchange their used syringes for clean ones in an effort to reduce both HIV and hepatitis C transmission.

But as de Marco explained, with the opioid crisis and the failure to address the issue of IV drug use, “HIV and Hep C infections are rapidly increasing in the injection drug use community.”

For now, Safehouse is in stasis as a new site and plans for opening are debated in City Council. But de Marco said it’s up to the Mayor to ensure that Safehouse does not become another casualty of Philadelphia politics.

He said, “Mayor Kenney must find his backbone and step up and do what he knows is the right thing to do: Saving lives.”