[Update, February 28: Less than 12 hours after this report was published, Safehouse withdrew its plan to open a safe consumption site in South Philadelphia next week. An online petition in opposition to the plan had gathered thousands of signatures on February 27, and a protest had been planned for March 1. “We’re going to take a pause, even though we are legally entitled to open,” stated Safehouse Vice President Ronda Goldfein, in order to have “meaningful conversations” with the community before proceeding.
Goldfein told Filter she was surprised by the level of vitriol expressed at the February 26 press conference. She said Safehouse will “regroup” to decide the best course of action, but added, “At the end of the day, supervised consumption is legal in the city of Philadelphia. And if we’re having a discussion with neighbors—and that’s part of a democratic process to have that discussion—it doesn’t change the fact that supervised consumption is legal in Philadelphia. This is a turn, not a derailment.”]
Harm reduction won an historic victory on February 25, when a federal court ruling gave Safehouse, a Philadelphia nonprofit, the official green light to open the nation’s first sanctioned safe consumption site.
The site will now open in South Philadelphia within a week, said Ronda Goldfein, the vice president and cofounder of Safehouse. It will prevent overdose and other harms by allowing drug use in a setting equipped with medical staff and harm reduction supplies. “Philadelphia, like the nation, is in an overdose crisis,” she said. “This is a medical model.”
US District Judge Gerald Austin McHugh granted Safehouse a Declaration of Final Summary Judgment, formalizing an interim decision he made in October. He found that the group’s model for overdose prevention does not violate the so-called “crack house statute” of the Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits the operation of facilities solely for the purpose of drug sales or consumption.
Yet the very next day came a reminder that social change often arrives even more slowly than legal decisions. The nonprofit’s leadership—which includes former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell—took a verbal lashing from some South Philly residents.
“You blindsided us! This is unacceptable, and you were a sneak about it.”
A morning press conference at Rendell’s office on February 26 was packed with both supporters of the site and angry residents, who said they were not consulted on the decision. Some of them took out their vitriol on Gov. Rendell personally.
“You blindsided us!” shouted one woman. “This is unacceptable, and you were a sneak about it. Look at us when we tell you, Mr. Rendell: You were a sneak. I will no longer call you governor because you’re not a governor, you’re a sneak.”
Goldfein pointed out that Safehouse would be holding community meetings in the coming weeks where residents can voice their concerns, and will maintain a phone hotline for people with questions or complaints.
One middle-aged South Philly resident, who said he was in recovery from heroin addiction, also objected to the placement of a safe consumption site (SCS) in his community.
“Who’s gonna protect our kids?” he asked,without clarifying exactly what they need protection from.
Goldfein responded, “We understand that your children should never have to see people use outside, and the goal here is to have them use inside.”
Pressed by a reporter, the man argued instead for more abstinence-based treatment facilities and detoxes. Research has repeatedly shown that treatment with methadone or buprenorphine is more effective than abstinence-based treatment at preventing fatal overdose in people who use opioids.
Safehouse still faces further challenges beyond the opposition of some locals—although one survey last summer showed that 90 percent of residents in Kensington, the neighborhood where Safehouse was originally slated to open, supported an SCS.
Safehouse changed its original plan to open in Kensington in part because it anticipated more demand there than it could meet, and also because the owner of a building it was set to lease got cold feet and pulled out of the agreement.
State Senator Larry Farnese, a Democrat who represents Pennsylvania’s First District, covering Philadelphia, called the site change a “bait-and-switch.”
“Safehouse was beginning to build public support through a patient and transparent dialogue with Philadelphians,’” he said. “Trust has been lost. If Safehouse believes it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission, we will prove them wrong.”
Members of Safehouse raised concerns that federal officials would target patrons of the facility.
Goldfein acknowledged that public discussions about the facility had largely revolved around the Kensington neighborhood, which suffers the highest rate of fatal overdoses in the city. She said South Philadelphia, which ranks second in drug fatalities, was chosen in part because its smaller numbers of transient drug users would enable the organization to maximize its limited resources. Budget estimates place the annual cost of operating the SCS at around $2 million.
Members of Safehouse also raised concerns that federal officials would target patrons of the facility, after US Attorney Bill McSwain—who launched the legal case against Safehouse in February 2019, and fought it on the basis that it would be illegal and fail to save lives—threatened to take any and all measures to prevent the site from opening before an appeal could be heard.
Safehouse recently hosted a workshop for lawyers who wish to volunteer escorting people to and from the site.
Rendell said South Philadelphia is just the start, and that Safehouse will continue to scout other locations, including Kensington. “Look, we do intend to open in other areas,” he said. “And we will modify this as we see what happens in South Philly.”
South Philadelphia has been on Safehouse’s radar for months as a potential SCS location, and it’s been an open secret among harm reduction advocates that a site there was imminent.
Filter received a tip several weeks ago from a reputable source in Philadelphia’s harm reduction community that an SCS had already quietly opened at a South Philly medical center. However, we were unable to corroborate that, and a source in Mayor Kenney’s administration, who asked to remain anonymous, told Filter that as far as they knew, Safehouse “doesn’t even have the keys yet.”
Following the press conference, as news vans sat outside the building, a staff member of an adult day care located at the planned SCS site told Filter that she is developing contingency plans in preparation for the site’s opening.
“We are mostly concerned about protesters,” she said, asking to remain anonymous. “We don’t know what it’s gonna look like out here.”
The decision to open in South Philly makes sense for a number of reasons. The eastern portion of the neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from the stadium district where all of the city’s professional sports teams play, has been hit harder by fatal overdoses than any other Philly neighborhood except Kensington. Yet harm reduction outreach, including naloxone distribution, is virtually nonexistent here.
In contrast to Kensington, which is known for its open-air drug markets, drugs and drug paraphernalia are not visible on the streets of South Philly. Most dealers conduct their business by phone and sometimes make house calls. The population is predominantly Italian American, with a tradition of children continuing to live in their parents’ homes into adulthood.
The majority of fatal overdoses here happen inside the home, with no one present to intervene. Compare that to Kensington, where injection drug use is often conducted in the open, and frequently in groups. Kensington’s proximity to Prevention Point Philadelphia also provides ready access to naloxone and sterile syringes.
No comparable program serves people who use drugs in lower South Philly. Few of the injecting drug users I’ve spoken with here carry naloxone, and for most, the only way to obtain sterile syringes is to purchase them from a pharmacy, making access less likely.
“We’re not gonna make it easy for you.”
Many South Philly residents are unswayed by these arguments, and oppose a SCS in their neighborhood on the flawed grounds it will draw more drug users to the area. They have pledged to wage a disruptive campaign against the site.
“We’re not gonna make it easy for you,” one woman said.
“It’s disgusting,” said a local resident who gave her name as Rose, and whom I encountered outside the medical facility where Safehouse is set to open. “This was a nice Italian neighborhood and it’s being turned to crap. I’d rather have the Mafia.”
The efficacy of SCS in saving lives and improving health is not in doubt. But as Safehouse begins formal operations, it will need to devote significant energy not just to helping the population it directly serves, but to heading off opposition from hostile residents and the feds.
Photo by Christopher Moraff shows Gov. Rendell next to Ronda Goldfein at the press conference on February 27.
The podcast Narcotica, which the author co-hosts, will feature more on this story later today, including audio from the press conference.