OK, so now what?

City has tried — and failed — yet again to open a safe injection site. So what's next?

Drug user
After failed attempts to open the nation’s first safe injection site, the question needs to be is Philly truly ready for sure a progressive ideology? | Image: Michael Longmire

In the aftermath of the city announcing plans to house the nation’s first safe injection facility in South Philadelphia, we as a newsroom brainstormed how we’d best go about covering whether or not this was going to be a good call or a drastic one.

We spent the latter part of an hour in discussion.

Less than 24 hours later, we realized we spent that time for nothing. 

With the city pressing pause on Safehouse following the NIMBY response from South Philadelphians who took to the streets to celebrate the fallout of the launch on Sunday, we are back to square one on where the city will house this unorthodox approach to curbing the opioid crisis. As of today, neighbors in both the open-air drug areas of Kensington and South Philadelphia said “no fucking way” to a plan that proposes it will actually help scores of people living with addiction in the city. 

While I kept a close eye on the progress, I kind of assumed all along it would never work in South Philly. The first is location. The largest open-air market is on the other side of town. You’re going to ask people who cop under the EL to get on the train, transfer to the sub at City Hall and then ride the rails down to all but three stops on the Broad Street Line to use safely? 

That’s just not happening. 

I posed that question on Facebook this week and was reminded that South Philly has a number of locations in that area that look just as rampant as what you’d find up by Kensington and Allegheny, Front and Girard – or anywhere under the EL tracks up North, really. Also, one person noted that South Philly has the issue of users who actually are dying solo in their homes, as opposed to Kensington, where people tend to form in groups to use and thus can react more quickly to an overdose. 

An interesting point if there’s data to support it. 

Look, I don’t have a solution to the problem, but I do have an idea. What if Safehouse wasn’t a house but a fleet of mobile units? I think the notion of a brick and mortar location and the stigma of “oh, you got that [insert adjective here] in your neighborhood,” is the prevailing issue here. So what if the only location was a place for a mobile unit to reside while doing the work of trying to get people into recovery was the issue?

Seems a lot easier to figure out. 

“The trick, no matter where [Safehouse] opens, will be getting people to use them when stigma is great enough that thousands of protesters are willing to show up to protest something that would save lives and give access to health care services.”

There’s blood mobiles, eye mobiles, there’s even a bus that travels to help end gun violence, so why can’t Safehouse go mobile? Is there a bigger picture I’m missing here? And please don’t suggest privacy considering people suffering from addiction can find any place to use. I think getting the help Safehouse says it can provide outweighs the proposed embarrassment or privacy one loses from going inside the bus. 

To me, it’s no different than going into a treatment facility or methadone clinic. 

We don’t know if Safehouse would cause an impact on the epidemic plaguing city streets because we’ve never been able to get it off the ground. While I could see where neighbors in South Philly were coming from, it was a bit alarming watching them coming out in droves in celebration of something that is proposed to help. 

One of the people in our Facebook discussion perhaps said it best:

“The trick, no matter where [Safehouse] opens, will be getting people to use them when stigma is great enough that thousands of protesters are willing to show up to protest something that would save lives and give access to health care services.”

It’s a really good point. 

You can build it, but will they come if the location isn’t convenient? That’s why I think if the city and Safehouse truly want this to jump off they should consider the mobile approach. How much greater is the cost? How much safer is it for the neighborhood – and the person suffering from addiction? How can you justify this and still ease the minds of taxpaying Philadelphians who want to curb the crisis as long as that curb isn’t their backyard?

This is the second time in the past two years Safehouse has come into a neighborhood, proposed a plan and found it shot down in the 11th hour. So where does that group go from here? Right now, we don’t know. And I think in the aftermath of what went down last Sunday from Philadelphians opposed to the very notion, it’ll be awhile before we do. 

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    Kerith Gabriel is the editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. Journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.