During Thursday’s Philadelphia City Council meeting, everyone learned that when it comes to America’s drug control policies, the only thing that everyone can agree on is, well, nothing.
During the May primary, Kensington, the nation’s opioid crisis, and the damage it’s done to the neighborhood and the people who live there came up a lot.
Because people come there to procure, and abuse drugs, and sometimes die of overdoses when they do that, businesses have trouble getting vendors to come and bring them supplies, children have to dodge needles on their way to school, and, occasionally, someone will find someone who didn’t survive their addiction.
Just to make things interesting, the street corner pharmaceutical market that has been created by the supply and demand created by drug addiction has led to Kensington also being one of the city’s centers for gun violence.
What everyone can agree on is that something needs to be done about this. Kids should be able to go to school or to the park to play without needing to be tested for HIV every six months due to being stuck by a needle. People should be able to go to the grocery store without fear of getting mugged by a dope fiend on the way.
Heck, Kensington has some really good restaurants. I’m a foodie. I’d like to check them out.
But here’s where the problem lies when it comes to Kensington.
We can all agree that something needs to be done. We all know that this situation has skipped right over the “hot mess” stage and right into the “red, hot mess” stage.
What we can’t seem to agree on is what that something should be.
During Thursday’s City Council meeting, the body’s first meeting after it’s summer break, Council passed a bill that would keep people from building centers that would allow addicts to use drugs in an atmosphere where dying from an overdose would be less likely without residents being allowed to weigh in.
It took me five minutes to write the sentence above because where you are in the debate determines what you call was covered in the overlay bill sponsored by Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, whose district includes Kensington. If you’re a supporter of the bill, they’re safe injection sites or narcotic injection sites. If you’re an opponent of the bill, they’re harm reduction centers.
And if you’re just keeping it real, you’re calling this place a “hit house”, which I found out is a place where people go to get and take drugs. Depending on what drug you’re taking, they can also be crack houses or meth houses. I guess that each house has its own title.
The reason for this bill, and another bill calling on the Mayor, the federal Department of Justice and Safehouse, the organization that’s been trying to put one of these centers in Philadelphia for what feels like years, to mandate public input when it comes to them, Lozada said. They should have to go through the Zoning Board of Adjustment, present their plans to the community and let community organizations weigh in.
Sure. That’s logical. No one should be able to come into your community and build something that you’re not sure you’d like to have there. That’s something that the folks who keep trying to give a new stadium to a sports team that ruined Mother’s Day for Philadelphia’s basketball fans don’t seem to want to hear.
(Yeah, Philadelphia 76ers, I’m talking about you. There’s a certain level of unmitigated gall that you have to have to ask Philadelphians for ANYTHING after that gawdawful performance you all put on in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics. Instead of spending millions on a new stadium, you need to take that money and buy some heart. And while you’re at it, get James Harden the hell out of here!)
But I digress…
No one should be able to put anything in a neighborhood that neighbors don’t want there. While Councilmember Jamie Gauthier excluded her district from Councilmember Lozada’s overlay bill, it’s a move she may want to reconsider for this aforementioned reason.
But some of the folks who spoke during public comment suggested that we forcibly commit the addicts of Kensington. Make the police arrest them and force them into rehabilitation centers.
There are two reasons why that’s not going to work.
One, and this is something that I have experienced firsthand through having addicts in my family, you can force an addict into treatment all you want. But if they haven’t “hit bottom” — come to the place where they’re tired of how being an addict makes them feel — they’re going to be right back out on the street in search of a high as soon as they get out. Especially if there are no supports in place to make sure the recovery takes.
Which brings me to the next reason it’s not going to work. The rehab system itself can’t support it. While Council President Darrell Clarke told me after Thursday’s meeting that he’s just waiting for someone to ask Council for the money to create more rehab beds to make this happen, there aren’t enough beds right now. There aren’t enough wrap around services for addicts when they get out of rehab.
Add to this the fact that Pennsylvania has one of the lowest Medicaid reimbursement rates in the country, and you get a situation that has the potential to become a merry go round.
And then there’s the last part of all this. Where are you going to put these rehab centers?
I can say with no fear of contradiction that the same people who came to Council chambers on Thursday to say that they don’t want safe injection sites/harm reduction centers/hit houses in their neighborhoods will return to Council chambers to oppose rehab centers.
So, how do we solve this?
Hopefully, this bill will begin a conversation that leads to a solution. Because one is needed here, and has been for a long time.
Our reporters sit through hours of city council meetings, dig through piles of documents, and ask tough questions other media overlook. Because we’re committed to addressing Philadelphia’s poverty crisis — and challenging those who sustain it. If you think this work is important too, please support our journalism.
We’re counting on readers like you.