'We were ambushed': South Philadelphia residents outraged over plans for safe injection site

Thursday, February 27, 2020
"We were ambushed." Outrage over safe injection site plan
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Residents are outraged over the planned opening of a safe injection site in South Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- South Philadelphia residents and community leaders are outraged over plans for a Safehouse supervised injection site that could open as early as next week at Constitution Health Plaza. It would be the first of its kind in the country.

On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that Safehouse would not be violating a federal drug law known commonly as "crack house statute."

Residents of the area expressed outrage on Wednesday as members of Safehouse made their presentation, saying "we were ambushed" and expressing displeasure and concern over the choice of location for the proposed facility.

Safehouse organizers told Action News that the site was chosen in South Philadelphia because the zip code has the third-highest overdose rate in the city. New data obtained by Action News shows South Philadelphia is actually tied for 6th.

"We picked South Philly because we know the demand will be less than Kensington and with the funding we have that is manageable," said Ronda Goldfein with Safehouse.

Safehouse also said that the facility will save lives by getting more users into treatment as they will have access to counseling and other services.

But residents in the community question the location especially its proximity to a local daycare and schools.

"People are very upset about this doing it in front of schools there is a daycare nearby this is a residential area with a vibrant shopping district," said Anthony Giordano with Stand-up Philadelphia.

There are already plans to appeal the ruling

Councilman Mark Squilla said that a lease has been signed for a safe injection site inside the Constitution Health Plaza at the corner of Broad and McKean streets.

Squilla says he's not happy about how this process has been handled.

"The city owes the community and elected officials an explanation on how this is going to be managed and the safety issues," said Squilla. "There so many unknowns, it's not fair to elected officials and the community."

"We understand they are opening up Monday, we are going to file whatever we can before this weekend," Squilla tells Action News.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the district that Safehouse will operate in, is just as outraged.

"The fact that this site houses two day care centers, a senior center, also within 500 feet of a school, it's totally unacceptable," he said.

Johnson says Safehouse was able to fly under the City Council's radar because the building is already zoned for a medical facility.

"The people in South Philadelphia need to have a say in this process and they will have a say so in this process," Johnson added.

State Sen. Larry Farnese, who represents Philadelphia's 1st district, says safe injection sites should not be in the state.

"If Safehouse intends to operate their facilities the same way they conducted their siting process, we cannot allow it in South Philly and we should not allow it anywhere in Pennsylvania," he said "If Safehouse believes it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission, we will prove them wrong."

Council President Darrell Clarke says he has "grave concerns" about the facility.

"I have grave concerns about whether a facility where people can inject narcotics will lead those individuals into treatment and recovery. Therefore, I cannot support safe injection sites in Philadelphia," said Clarke.

Philadelphia has the highest opioid death rate of any large U.S. city

Mayor Jim Kenney, a vocal supporter of the supervised injection sites released the following statement: "We applaud the Court's affirmation of its earlier ruling that Safehouse doesn't violate the federal statute. The City will continue to support private operators such as Safehouse that seek to establish overdose prevention sites in Philadelphia."

Mayor Kenney announced last year he and other city officials supported Safehouse's plan to open locations where people can inject drugs under the supervision of a doctor or nurse who can administer an overdose antidote if necessary. Last summer, Kenney toured sites in Canada.

He admitted Wednesday that the city had no input.

"Its in their backyard already. It's one of the areas that has highest rates of opioid use and heroin," he said.

READ MORE: 6abc's coverage of the opioid crisis across the Delaware Valley

Bringing a safe-injection site to Philadelphia has been a battle

U.S. Attorney William McSwain sued Safehouse last year, arguing it's seeking to break the law and normalize the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

"We respectfully disagree with the District Court's ruling and plan to appeal immediately," said United States Attorney William M. McSwain on Tuesday. "What Safehouse proposes is a radical experiment that would invite thousands of people onto its property for the purpose of injecting illegal drugs. In our view, this would plainly violate the law and we look forward to presenting our case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit."

In 2018, Action News traveled to Canada where safe injection sites are already up and running. Our visit came with mixed reactions.

The facilities are clean and a gateway to rehabilitation. But we also saw prevalent drug use and sales outside the facilities during an after operating hours. We even saw assaults and other crimes.

"We offer all the supplies that they'd need: tourniquet, sterile water, cookers, and then they can select the needle that most meets their needs," said Shaun Hopkins, who runs a site in the heart of Toronto's tourism district. "We intervened, so far, from August 2017, in about 170 overdoses either with Naloxone or oxygen. So you could say we've saved those lives," she said.

When asked about public support for the facility, and whether it has increased or decreased, Hopkins said, "I think public support for this facility is difficult."

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw provided few details on how police would enforce the site. But users will be provided access, and free from interference.

"Our role is to ensure the safety of all of those involved, including those in the neighborhood as well," said Outlaw.