Philadelphia Might Get The Nation’s First Overdose Prevention Site. This Is How They’re Preparing.

By Keya Vakil

February 24, 2020

The plan clarifies the role Philadelphia’s city government intends to play if and when the proposed site opens its doors.

Philadelphia is inching closer to opening the nation’s first overdose prevention site, and city officials are preparing accordingly.

The city released a new public safety plan this month outlining how they intend to address the concerns of neighborhood residents. The plan clarifies the role city government intends to play if and when the nonprofit organization Safehouse finally overcomes legal challenges from the Department of Justice and opens its proposed facility. 

Overdose prevention sites, also known as safe injection sites, prioritize harm reduction and allow people struggling with addiction to use drugs under medical supervision, access treatment, and be revived if they overdose.

The proposed site in Philadelphia has the backing of the Mayor Jim Kenney.

“The City of Philadelphia will support Safehouse in establishing the nation’s first Overdose Prevention Sites (OPS) because the Kenney Administration believes OPS will save lives and connect people suffering from addiction to needed services and health care,” the city explained in its plan. “While the City is not operating the OPS, we are committed to addressing the public safety needs of the surrounding community as well as the service needs of the clients using the site.”

The city also aims to ensure there’s no increase in illegal drug sales or any other kind of crime near the proposed OPS.

In order to achieve these goals, the plan calls for the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) to maintain a “constant presence in the immediate and surrounding area.” The PPD will also implement narcotics enforcement to prevent targeted sales to individuals entering and exiting the facility and work with the SEPTA Transit Police Department to provide a strong uniform presence on public transit lines.

The plan also says Town Watch Integrated Services, a local volunteer organization, “will assist in organizing neighborhood cleanups, mediating disputes, conducting drug prevention, education and helping students travel safely to and from schools.”

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy emphasized that the location of the site will play a key role in whether or not the OPS causes any disruption.

“The potential impact of an OPS may be reduced if it opens in a location where complementary services are already available,” Abernathy said. “The city will provide on-site treatment and support services at overdose prevention sites.”

The proposed facility has been slated to open in the Kensington neighborhood, which is already “the largest open-air narcotics market for heroin on the East Coast.” In 2017, 236 people died of drug overdoses in Kensington, making it the site of nearly 20% of Philadelphia’s fatal overdoses.

Some local residents support the plan, eager to get those suffering from addiction off the streets.

“Whatever it takes to get them somewhere safe, somewhere healed, somewhere where we don’t have to worry about needles being on the ground while our babies are outside playing, I’m all for it,” Kensington resident Pam Martinez told CBS 3 News.

But not everyone is on board. Kathryn Pannepacker works with people in Kensington who are suffering from addiction and homelessness and is wary of any increase in the presence of law enforcement in the community, given the police union’s past opposition to the site. She also cited questionable behavior she’s witnessed from officers.

“They haven’t really established a relationship of warmth,” Pannepacker told WHYY of local officers. “Of, ‘We got your back, we care about you, we’re listening, what are your needs.’”

She also fears a greater police presence could actually scare people away from using the site and might only push drug sales into other neighborhoods.

“Folks are gonna do what they gotta do to get well and get drugs,” she told WHYY.

Resident skepticism isn’t the only remaining obstacle. Safehouse has yet to select a final location or obtain all the financing it needs to open its doors. It still faces legal hurdles, too. William McSwain, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, opposes the proposal and is attempting to block Safehouse from opening its site. The case is currently going through appeals.

But based on its new plan, the city is proceeding as if the OPS will in fact open its doors one day.


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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