Safe, at first

Before COVID-19, debate was hot over where to house the nation's first safe injection site

Heroin
Back when Kensington was thought to be the site of the first safe-injection site, PW talked to people in the area – some in support of the site and some against. | Image: Michael Longmire

Back before COVID-19 took over everyone’s lives and much of the news, the debate over whether a safe-injection site should open in Philly took center stage. 

At first, Kensington was believed to be the most logical spot for a site. Then the city switched gears and talked about opening one in South Philly. After protests erupted against that plan, the issue went away – especially after C-19 came on the scene.

Back when Kensington was thought to be the site of the first safe-injection site, PW talked to people in the area – some in support of the site and some against. Here’s what they told us earlier this year.

As the Philadelphia legal team pondered the idea of allowing a safe-injection site to open in Kensington, some residents welcomed the arrival of the facility with support and open arms, as others hoped the idea doesn’t get past litigation. When asked about the intentions of the program, officials with Safehouse proudly boasted about all the “great things” they intended to do, from lowering the drug epidemic, and lessening the HIV epidemic with the help of distributing clean needles; to the actual recovery and rehabilitation of each individual they welcome into Safehouse. 

Safehouse is a safe consumption site that was established in the early 2000s by Jose Beneitz. He then partnered with Rhonda Goldfein (the executive director of the AIDS Law Project). 

Kensington is known for being the home to the highest quality heroin, making it possibly the ideal location to hit Philadelphia’s drug epidemic head on. Earlier, Safehouse was in negotiation of a lease on Hilton Street near Allegheny area for $1 per year, however that conversation was just that. 

The data does show the number of fatal overdoses had decreased from 2,300 (2017) to 1,116 as of late 2018, early 2019. 

When asked if he knew what a safe injection site was, Joe – a Kensington resident – nodded and then quickly began to advocate for Safehouse, explaining how the opening of the facility will be the solution to the epidemic. He bragged about the great possibilities it could bring “if it succeeds” and how “this [Safehouse] will hit the drug epidemic head-on and improve Kensington.” 

Ty – another Kensington resident – had no knowledge of Safehouse hoping to open in her area, nor did she know what a safe-injection site was; however, when informed she quickly backed the program, saying “at least they [users] will have somewhere to go.” She passionately expressed her exasperation of how the epidemic is publicized due to not having a facility like Safehouse. When asked if she believes the program will succeed, she shrugged and said “we won’t know if we don’t try.” 

Mar, a Kensington native, had seen the drug epidemic firsthand. When asked if he had any knowledge about Safehouse, or if he knew what a safe injection sight is, he shook his head in confusion. Once informed, he stood silent for several minutes with a look of puzzlement on his face, then calmly said, “that kind of sounds like a crack house.” He then began to rant about how the program “basically contradicts the law” and would be a waste of money, time, and resources because it’s an “ineffective way to combat the drug epidemic.” 

But Safehouse also has many supporters, and one said he is thrilled to be working with Safehouse and feels as though their efforts to battle the drug epidemic in Philly is worth the exploration. He said that safe-injection sites are a “tool used in other countries” and the statistics show that it is a good possibility this program could succeed. He believed the program will start off slowly and will need more funding in order to service the epidemic as well as open a larger site in the future if things pan out the way they are intended to. He thinks with the right support this movement could actually benefit Philadelphia. 

As for the local businesses, the epidemic seemed to be at their doorstep. Intoxicated users near their place of business don’t make the place approachable. Most businesses PW spoke to weren’t opposed to the idea of a site, given the fact that users won’t be in the vicinity of their business if Safehouse opens. “Why not try it?” a local store owner said about the matter.