Officials renew outrage over failed bid for supervised injection site, call for oversight

State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, speaks during a news conference at Philadelphia City Hall on Monday 3/2/20 (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — The fallout from Safehouse’s failed bid to open a supervised injection site intensified on Monday as legislators sought to seize control over the process and called for more transparency.

A coalition of state and local officials renewed their outrage at Safehouse, saying the trust its leadership built with the community over the past few years was shattered when they failed to seek community input over a plan to operate an overdose prevention site inside the Constitution Health Plaza in South Philadelphia.

Officials questioned the city’s current response to the opioid epidemic, and called for the review and reconsideration of the city’s existing services.

“The reason why you see this reaction today is because of the process that was played out by Safehouse,” said Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents District 1 that includes parts of the Kensington neighborhood, the epicenter of the opioid crisis.

“They [members of Safehouse’s leadership] created this atmosphere of non-trust amongst not only elected officials but also the communities they possibly wanted to site one of the safe injection sites.”

Safehouse, an independent nonprofit not linked to the city, counts former Gov. Ed Rendell as a board member, and city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley as a member of its advisory committee. Mayor Jim Kenney has supported the opening of an overdose prevention site (OPS).

State Sen. Anthony Williams, a West Philadelphia Democrat and staunch opponent of supervised injection sites, said Safehouse’s lack of transparency has renewed interest in his legislation that would regulate the opening of such facilities.

State Sen. Christine Tartaglione, a Democrat whose 2nd District includes the Kensington neighborhood, said she would soon introduce her own legislation targeting supervised injection sites.

Philadelphia safe-injection site will not open – for now

“If Mayor Kenney and Gov. Rendell believe so strong about safe injection sites, put it next to their homes!” Tartaglione said.

Ronda B. Goldfein, vice president of Safehouse’s board of directors, said in an email that elected officials should be “helping to save lives instead of putting up obstacles.”

“We are saddened by stigma-laden legislation that doesn’t help our neighbors who are struggling with opioid use,” Goldfein said.

Williams’ proposal, Senate Bill 933, would grant the governing bodies of municipalities the power to authorize the opening of a supervised injection site. The legislation would mandate at least three public hearings and the development of a community safety plan as prerequisites for approval to operate.

Under the proposal, violating the legislation would be a felony and carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years and $500,000 for an individual, and up to $2 million for an organization.

“It [Senate Bill 933] will move because people outside of Philadelphia are now concerned about their communities,” Williams said, but provided no timeline for when his legislation could get a vote in the state Senate. It is currently in the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, an opponent of supervised injection sites who represents District 2 where Safehouse planned to open its facility, said local officials should investigate whether city-funded organizations fighting the opioid epidemic were achieving results.

“This issue is bigger than just the politics of the day and individuals who just want to be progressive for the sake of being progressive,” he said.

“If you really want to save lives, let’s look at everything that we’re doing. What’s the comprehensive plan here in the city of Philadelphia to address the opioid crisis?”

Squilla called on city leaders to reconsider their response to the opioid epidemic and how to reduce opioid overdose deaths in order to ensure they work for both those struggling with addiction and the communities they live in.

To drive overdose deaths down, Squilla suggested investing more in outreach efforts and remove barriers to treatment, including bans on the use of tobacco at city-funded inpatient drug rehabs.

“So if you smoke, you can’t get treatment, but yet … you want to have people safely inject and then maybe hopefully get treatment,” he said.

The future of the nation’s first supervised injection site opening in Philadelphia remains uncertain.

Constitution Health Plaza originally agreed to rent space to Safehouse, but withdrew from the agreement Thursday after significant public backlash.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain also filed a court notice last week that he will appeal the judge’s ruling that allows Safehouse to open the supervised injection site.

Last week, Philadelphia City Council proposed its own legislation that would grant the governing body the power to oversee the opening of supervised injection sites, classifying the sites as a “nuisance health establishments” and establishing other requirements.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.