Savage Sisters Calls for SSP Funding, as Kensington Funds More Policing

March 15, 2024

In 2017, Sarah Laurel was trying to find housing at the same time she was entering recovery. Kensington, Philadelphia, seemed to have a frustrating lack of access to both. When Laurel did secure housing, still in the early days of her recovery, she began conducting outreach from her stoop. Savage Sisters Recover Inc. was born.

The Kensington-based 501(c)3 nonprofit has two main areas of direct service, shaped by the experience of its founder: harm reduction outreach and recovery housing. Savage Sisters operates 11 recovery houses across South Philadelphia and Delaware County, and conducts weekly street-based outreach in Kensington. In addition to wound care and other harm reduction supplies like Narcan, they distribute safer-use supplies like sterile syringes.

Safer-use equipment like syringes and pipes are criminalized under Pennsylvania’s drug paraphernalia statute. The state doesn’t have an exemption for syringe service programs (SSP), but some jurisdictions including Philadelphia have sanctioned SSP at the local level.

A trauma survivor, Laurel was put on a two-year wait list for therapy when she enrolled in Medicaid, and works to approach Savage Sisters outreach holistically. A brick-and-mortar location would help them bridge more people to the wraparound services they expressed needing. 

City Councilmember Quetcy Lozada had a message for their landlord: Don’t renew the lease.

In October 2023, a grant funded with some of Philadelphia’s $180 million in opioid settlement payouts allowed Savage Sisters to rent a property where they began operating a drop-in center that allows them to offer wound care and showers. 

Then Philadelphia City Councilmember Quetcy Lozada (D), who represents a district that contains part of Kensington, had a message for their landlord: Don’t renew the lease.

Savage Sisters tried for months to meet with Lozada before one was held in late January. Laurel, who serves as executive director, told Filter that Lozada vowed to do everything in her power to not only get Savage Sisters out of Kensington, but to get harm reduction out of Kensington altogether.

“She actually came out and publicly stated that; I didn’t think that she would, to be quite honest,” said Laurel. “[I thought] she would be a little bit more cloak and dagger about it.”

Savage Sisters is heavily involved in harm reduction advocacy, regularly organizing demonstrations and offering trainings at schools across the city. But Lozada has powerful support—her approach to law enforcement aligns with the mayor’s.



On March 14, 2024, Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle L. Parker unveiled an annual budget that heavily invests in “community policing.” Parker campaigned on the concept, inspired by Operation Sunrise—a 1998 police onslaught against anything it associated with drug use, from sex work to graffiti.

“My Administration supports an array of public health strategies, from dispensing naloxone and Narcan and Fentanyl test strips to administering care, providing access to treatment and counseling, and other services,” Parker stated in prepared remarks. “I will not allow us to be put in a box suggesting we do not care. We care—deeply—about every person in addiction.”

Days before Savage Sisters met with Lozado, Parker issued an executive order declaring “current levels of crimes” a Public Safety Emergency. It tasked local law enforcement with finding a way to “permanently shut down all pervasive open-air drug markets, including but not limited to the open-air drug markets in the Kensington neighborhood.”

Parker’s new policing strategy will take effect in April. She’s also been promising an ominous move toward police-run “triage centers,” the first of which Laurel thinks will likely open in an abandoned strip club recently purchased with the opioid settlement funds that SSP were cut off from. 

“The [city council] said the way that it’s going to work is, you’re gonna get arrested and you’re gonna get two choices: jail or treatment,” Laurel said. “Creating a police-run triage center without communicating with harm reduction organizations seems a bit irresponsible. And unethical.”

Anything “directly used in the consumption of illegal drugs” would not be eligible for opioid settlement grant money

Laurel said that this is the first time the City Council, the Mayor’s office, and judicial system have collaborated this way, and no one working in harm reduction had a seat at the table. Local harm reductionists are bracing for attacks on anyone who provides direct services, especially wound care. Several other organizations have already had their zoning permits pulled.

Savage Sisters doesn’t receive any city funding, so Laurel was hoping for additional grant money from opioid settlement payouts. She serves on a participatory grantmaking committee that makes recommendations for how the payouts should be allocated. But on March 4, she got an email from the Scattergood Foundation, the nonprofit partnering with the city to disburse the funding. It informed her that while the money could go toward supplies like naloxone and fentanyl test strips, anything “directly used in the consumption of illegal drugs” would not be eligible

Savage Sister will try to relocate their drop-in center. They’ve also renovated two RVs for mobile outreach, equipped with fully functional showers. 

Savage Sisters has formally requested that Parker and the City Council pledge to not interrupt harm reduction services, but Laurel isn’t optimistic about the way things stand currently. She described the other members of the grantmaking committee making derogatory comments about SSP and other services for people who use drugs; in a recent meeting one member referred to methadone as “jungle juice.” 

“None of them even know what harm reduction is.” 



Update, March 15: This article has been updated to include the Savage Sisters recovery houses located in Delaware County.

Top photograph via Savage Sisters. Inset photograph via Sarah Laurel.

Adryan Corcione

Adryan is a journalist and writer covering drugs and policing. Their reporting has appeared in publications including Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue, Vice and Complex. They live in New Jersey.

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