Philly Activists Rally Against Kensington Crackdown, Attacks on Harm Reduction

    Philadelphia advocates are speaking out against the city for targeting both people who use drugs and harm reduction provision, in a crackdown centered on the Kensington neighborhood. On March 7 they rallied outside City Hall, as lawmakers debated a new round of measures.

    Councilmember Quetcy Lozada (D), who represents part of Kensington, is spearheading a council effort to focus on the area. Through their “Kensington Caucus,” these lawmakers are proposing a series of “triage centers” to take people off the streets and send them to either treatment or jail, as Philly Voice reported.

    This comes after newly elected Mayor Cherelle Parker (D) issued a January 24 executive order that declared a Public Safety Emergency in Philadelphia, and appointed a deputy police commissioner to target drug sales. During her election campaign in 2023, Parker had said that deploying the National Guard against drug markets “will be a part of the solution.”

    Councilmembers have additionally worked to undermine harm reduction efforts in the neighborhood.

    Her executive order promised to “[develop] a strategy to permanently shut down all pervasive open-air drug markets, including but not limited to the open-air drug markets in the Kensington neighborhood.” It empowered the police department to increase patrols, and to train and equip more cops for “community policing.”

    With the effects of this already being felt in Kensington, councilmembers have additionally worked to undermine harm reduction efforts in the neighborhood.

    On February 16, Lozada and three others released a statement in support of a commercial property owner’s decision to not renew a Kensington Avenue lease for harm reduction provider Savage Sisters. The nonprofit describes its work as providing “trauma-informed recovery housing, harm reduction, outreach and statewide education.”

    Claiming to “[echo] the voices of residents and neighbors,” the four lawmakers stated: “In recent conversations with members of the Kensington community, we heard overwhelmingly positive feedback about the prospect of certain organizations no longer operating on Kensington Avenue … For years, residents and neighboring businesses have explained to us their frustrations with these organizations, describing them as a nuisance.”

    “Families live here,” they continued. “Children walk these streets every day to get to school and Kensington is their home. They did not ask for this and they deserve better; this neighborhood can no longer be the home of an open-air drug market nor organizations that encourage the market to thrive.”

    Sarah Laurel, founder and executive director of Savage Sisters, told Filter that the property owner’s decision not to renew the lease was a result of private conversations with city officials including Lozada.

    “They announced on public television that they pressured the landlord to hold us accountable and accused us of operating a safe consumption site—which we don’t, we only have showers and wound-care there,” she said. “[Lozada] has admitted in several different interviews that she contacted our landlord and asked them not to renew the lease.”

    “They’re doing sweeps and they’re moving encampments and arresting people for possession and ‘paraphernalia.'”

    Laurel said that her organization had spent several months trying to get a meeting with Lozada, and that when it finally happened, the councilmember made her hostility to Savage Sisters crystal clear. The organization is continuing its work, and transitioning to a new site.


    Laurel also decribed the crackdown that’s under way in Kensington in advance of any “triage centers” being established, with an increased police presence targeting people who are unhoused or use drugs.

    “This has been happening for four weeks now,” she said. “They’re doing sweeps and they’re moving encampments and arresting people for possession and ‘paraphernalia’ … There is no triage center, there are no extra available treatment facility beds, and a lot of the individuals we serve have open wounds, ulcers and infections, and I don’t know how they’re going to handle that during the arrest process.”

    “If it was up to me, it wouldn’t be there,” Councilmember Lozada said of Prevention Point.

    Based on data released in October 2023, Philadelphia suffered 1,413 overdose deaths in 2022, an 11 percent increase from the year prior. Most of the deaths involved opioids (83 percent, primarily fentanyl), as well as stimulants (70 percent, primarily cocaine).

    Yet in this context, Savage Sisters is not the only harm reduction program to be undermined by the city. Mayor Parker is cutting potential new funds to providers of sterile syringes by denying them any opioid settlement money, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on March 6. The city is receiving $180 million over 18 years from various lawsuits against opioid companies, but Parker announced that this will not be used to fund “anything directly used in the consumption of illegal drugs.”


    Restricting funding for or access to sterile syringes is liable to increase transmissions of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. “Given how little money is involved, it’s not a budgetary decision—it’s a decision about politics and optics,” Ayden Scheim, associate professor of epidemiology at Drexel University School of Public Health, told the Inquirer. “It’s putting people who use drugs at risk to score political points.”

    More of this could follow. Harm reduction advocates will be watching closely as the mayor reveals her first citywide budget in the coming days, to see if she cuts funding for Prevention Point, the city’s most longstanding syringe service program.

    Despite syringe service programs being unauthorized in the state of Pennsylvania, Prevention Point has operated with city support since Mayor Ed Rendell (D) gave it legal protection in 1991.

    “If it was up to me, it wouldn’t be there,” Councilmember Lozada said of Prevention Point in February, while Councilmembers Mike Driscoll and Mark Squilla, both also Democrats, questioned the potential “negative impact” of sterile syringe provision.

    “This is one of many times we are going to use our voices to amplify this message.”

    “I’m deeply concerned,” Laurel said of the possiblity of Prevention Point losing funding. The organization, she continued, “offers a multitude of services: from housing, to access to [medications for opioid use disorder], to STI testing and treatment. Cutting their funding would put an unnecessary burden on the medical systems and compound the public health crisis we’re currently experiencing.”

    Harm reductionists are braced for more of what Laurel described as “bullying” from the city. The City Hall rally was held to reminde lawmakers and the public that harm reduction is a vital, evidence-based means of addressing drug-related harms and homelessness—not something that should be scapegoated for those issues.

    “It was really nice to see so many organizations come together in this coalition and stand together in solidarity,” Laurel said. “We had many community members, members of the medical field, and harm reduction leaders marching side by side and demanding these services remain and not be suspended. This is one of many times we are going to use our voices to amplify this message.”


    Photographs of March 7 City Hall rally courtesy of Savage Sisters

    Correction, March 19: This article has been edited to clarify that the mayor declared a Public Safety Emergency for the city of Philadelphia, rather than only Kensington.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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