On Tuesday February 25, 2020, District Court Judge Gerald McHugh, an Obama appointee, finalized his decision concluding that facilities that allow the supervised injection of illegal drugs do not violate federal law, paving the way for both an appeal and the opening of a Philadelphia “safe” heroin injection site. Locals immediately reacted, wondering just where this federal court-sanctioned drug den would set up shop. Most people assumed it would be in Kensington, a neighborhood known as the epicenter of the opioid crisis, and plagued by homelessness, unemployment and crime.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney opined, “Our job as a city is to support efforts to alleviate suffering and to save lives.” In the name of compassion, and with the blessing of one activist judge, Safehouse, a Philadelphia nonprofit, has plowed ahead with its plan. Drug addicts may soon be able to inject under the watchful eye of monitors, standing ready to revive them in the event of an overdose (likely) and possibly steer them into some type of a treatment plan.
But this week Safehouse shocked the city by announcing that they would be opening not in Kensington, but at Constitution Health Plaza at Broad & McKean streets, in the heart of South Philadelphia. A daycare, South Philadelphia High School, and scores of apartments and rowhomes are close by, along with many thriving businesses and the popular East Passyunk district.
At a rowdy press conference announcing the location, the Safehouse founders realized that while Philadelphians have a history of tolerating urban chaos and inept leadership, plopping a drug den in the middle of a commercial and residential corridor full of working and middle class families will not be quite such an easy sell.
Plopping a drug den in the middle of a commercial and residential corridor full of working and middle class families will not be quite such an easy sell.
Corrupt politicians, indicted city councilmen, crooked county judges, intractable poverty, providing sanctuary to illegal aliens while the mayor dances, a soft-on-crime District Attorney, axle-busting potholes, an exorbitant soda tax and a soaring crime rate have certainly all generated their fair share of rumblings. But nothing compares to the fury that Philadelphians displayed after this weeks’ Safehouse announcement.
There were no public meetings, comment periods, zoning hearings, debates or discussions. Safehouse summarily decreed that their first site would be in South Philly. The furor about the ambush immediately followed.
One woman, caught on video, unleashed a torrent of outrage about the plan foisted upon her and her neighbors with no warning, no transparency and no community input. Without missing a beat, looking at notes or even seeming to take a breath, she channeled the outrage of an entire city.
Without missing a beat, looking at notes or even seeming to take a breath, she channeled the outrage of an entire city.
Directed at the Safehouse founders standing a few feet away from her, including former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, she shouted: “We had a meeting about crime, where were you? You were all silent because you snuck it in.”
She succinctly reminded all in attendance of the loyalty of South Philadelphians to their neighborhood: “You blindside us. So tell everybody in South Philly, generations of families, who do not leave, who have college degrees, who sit there and stay in our community, who raise our children there…”
“Because for you, that’s the street you go down when you go to an Eagles game, and a Sixers game. You don’t sit there and live in our community. You don’t walk on date night like my husband and I do to Passyunk Avenue. You don’t take your kids to the daycare like I do.”
She highlighted the devastating effects such a site could have on her community:
“And what about the mothers who have to walk by and step over the bags to take their kids to daycare. Are you going to clean our outside. I don’t care about inside. I care about needles outside. I care about bags outside. I care about what my children have to see at 6 and 10 years old…that I have to explain hardened drug addiction. This is unacceptable and you were a sneak about it.”
She called out the former governor, reminding everyone that pedigree and credentials mean nothing when you are threatening a South Philly girl:
“Look at us when we tell you Mr. Rendell. You were a sneak. I will not call you governor because you are no longer governor. You are a sneak.”
After the announcement, many local elected officials, who until now had previously tacitly approved of the Safehouse plan, are awakening from their slumber, apparently noticing the unchecked rage of their constituents. What might have been acceptable in Kensington is a bridge too far in South Philly.
Chad Pradelli of 6ABC reports that when he toured Toronto’s Safe Injection Site, an apparent model for Philadelphia, he found the insides clean and a gateway to rehabilitation for users. Outside the site was a different story: illicit drug use and sales as well as other crimes, during and after the operating hours of the site.
How soon will Broad and McKean be afflicted with such blight?
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William M. McSwain, who has adamantly opposed the Safehouse plan since it was first introduced (regardless of location), pulled no punches in avowing a swift appeal of the judge’s ruling. He has long maintained his intent to utilize available federal law enforcement options to keep the community safe.
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William M. McSwain, who has adamantly opposed the Safehouse plan since it was first introduced (regardless of location), pulled no punches in avowing a swift appeal of the judge’s ruling.
Philly can take some comfort that McSwain, who has held the U.S. Attorney office less than two years, has secured dozens and dozens of convictions and guilty pleas of drug traffickers and shady doctors, ferociously attacking those responsible for the proliferation of illicit drugs on our streets. Just this week, his office secured convictions of three South Philly drug dealers who managed a round-the-clock opioid and heroin operation, delivering drugs on demand by call or text. McSwain realizes that attacking the opioid crisis requires attacking the supply chain. Further, he has remained consistent in his opposition, unlike many other local leaders who were willing to condone such a plan as long as it was palmed off upon an already devastated neighborhood with citizens unwilling or unable to voice meaningful opposition.
If Safehouse has no place in South Philly, why is it acceptable in Kensington, or any other Philadelphia neighborhood? If these sites draw unchecked criminality, blight and public health problems, no Philadelphian deserves that in front of their home.
If Safehouse has no place in South Philly, why is it acceptable in Kensington, or any other Philadelphia neighborhood?
Maybe in the face of the pushback, the Safehouse founders and Mayor Kenney will reconsider their ill advised plan — not just relocate it.
Linda A. Kerns is an attorney and a co-founder of Broad + Liberty. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @lindakernslaw.
Broad + Liberty co-founders Albert Eisenberg and Terry Tracy contributed to this piece.
Please support Broad + Liberty. We rely on the generosity
of donors to continue publishing great work.