In 2017, there were more than 45,000 overdose deaths involving opioids in the United States, more than double that of 2000. The opioid epidemic has become one of the worst public health crises the United States has seen since the HIV/AIDS epidemic. With more than 130 people dying every day as a result of opioid misuse and addiction, this isn’t an issue that we can brush under the carpet.
Perhaps one of the worst hit neighborhoods lies not even half an hour from Drexel’s campus. Synonymous with cheap and accessible heroin, Kensington has become what the New York Times calls the “Walmart of Heroin” and locals have nicknamed “The Badlands.” Complete with “guides” and “drug tourists,” Kensington has become quite the tourist destination for people looking for drugs like PCP, cocaine and literally anything else you could think of. Coupled with poverty, crime and violence, Kensington is a neighborhood in dire straits.
But when mayor Jim Kenney took office in 2016, things seemed to be looking up slightly for Kensington. With Kenney’s mayoral debut came a progressive and comprehensive plan to better the state of Kensington’s residents. Focusing his plan on treatment rather than incarceration, Kenney approached the problem with pragmatism and compassion. Since 2016, the mayor has poured money, time and various resources into clearing heroin encampments, improving public safety, opening homeless shelters and dispensing Narcan.
Despite all this, it doesn’t seem like anything has improved. Kensington is still a part of “The Badlands,” and people are still dying.
Since then, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that homelessness has rocketed up to 703 residents, more than double that of the year before. Not to mention that overdose deaths rose by around 50 percent from 2016 to 2017. It is abundantly clear: something isn’t working. New and innovative relief efforts have to be introduced if there is any true intention of restoring Kensington.
This is exactly what Philadelphia’s local government has endorsed. Mayor Kenney has put his support behind Safehouse, a nonprofit group created to build a safe injection site at the site of the worst opioid epidemics in the country. This proposed safe injection would be the first of its kind in the United States. Philadelphia could set the model for dealing with communities disproportionately affected by opioid addiction. Equipped with medically trained professionals, Narcan and rehabilitation options, Safehouse would be a multi-faceted and “harm reduction” focused approach to dealing with the issues in Kensington.
Former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell has also voiced his opinion in favor of the first ever safe injection site in the United States. Rendell, who famously supported needle-exchange programs during the height of the AIDS epidemic despite its controversy, now backs a safe injection site at a time where the opioid epidemic is taking lives at an alarming rate. Rendell is a politician who knows what he’s doing, particularly when it comes to tackling public health crises of this scale. For that reason, his backing speaks volumes of what a safe injection site can do for Kensington and all the other neighborhoods struck by addiction.
Not only does Safehouse have the backing of reputable and experienced people, but it’s already been tested. The United States is coming to this idea after many other well-developed countries have already begun putting it into action. At the same time that the United States was dealing with the crack cocaine health crisis, the Netherlands was dealing with a major heroin abuse epidemic. However, rather than waging a war against drugs through the means of incarceration, the Netherlands used positive public health approaches, like social services, housing facilities and, of course, supervised injection sites. The Netherlands, with nearly 40 safe injection sites, is a pioneer in dealing with opioid abuse as a chronic condition, rather than something that must be cured. In 2016, there were 235 opioid overdose deaths in the Netherlands. Now compare that to the United States’ whopping 45,000 deaths. The statistics speak for themselves; safe injection sites are effective.
However, despite the support of local government, Safehouse has been confronted with legal battles from federal prosecutors. U.S. Attorney William McSwain and the federal government sued Safehouse, claiming that it would violate various “crack house laws.” While Safehouse won the case, it has been appealed and they must wait until the appeal’s process is over to begin construction.
In a letter to Safehouse leaders, McSwain wrote, “If you and your clients choosee to move forward, I will have no choice but to take the steps necessary to maintain the status quo.”
The status quo. Is the status quo more important than the lives of Kensington residents? If the status quo means that more than 130 people die every single day, is it worth keeping?
Make no mistake, William McSwain and his team do not care about the individual loss of life in Kensington or anywhere else, for that matter. All they care about is setting precedent. This is a stepping stone in preventing any other safe injection sites from opening anywhere else in the country. If McSwain wins here in Philadelphia, the implications will take effect all over the country, putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans in danger. But all that matters to McSwain is winning this case, for it will have effectively made his career and guarantee him nice titled jobs for the rest of his life, while those grappling with the effects of opioid addiction are left with no resources.
The longer this legal red tape surrounds Safehouse, the more people are going to die. Philadelphia and every single life affected by addiction can’t wait for McSwain to finish up his exercise in self-aggrandizement. Every moment that McSwain and his team continue to fight is another life lost, another person who loses the battle against addiction. At the end of the day, there’s only one question we have to ask ourselves: Do we care enough about the lives being lost to do something about it?