Pubdate: Mon, 19 Mar 2018
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2018 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Aubrey Whelan


Midway through a community meeting in Northeast Philadelphia on the 
opioid crisis Monday, a man stood up at the back of the room and yelled 
out a question to city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley: "Doctor, where
do you live? Can we put a safe injection site next door to you?"

The crowd of 150 in the Fox Chase community center applauded and burst
into shouts in a display that vividly showed the tough sales job the
city is facing as it tries to fulfill a promise to allow a place where
people in addiction can use drugs under medical supervision. As heroin
has been adulterated with the deadlier opioid fentanyl, often without
the user's knowledge, the overdose death rate has soared. Quick
administration of a reversal medicine can save lives.

Health Department officials - who said they live in West Philly, South
Philly, and in Farley's case New Jersey - were in Fox Chase to talk
about the overall plan to fight the epidemic, 18 recommendations that
include expanding access to medication-assisted treatment and housing
for people in addiction. But the only point anyone wanted to talk
about was green-lighting a safe injection site.

"The hot one," said Mary Doherty, the director of government and
strategic partnerships at CORA Services Inc., the community center
that hosted the meeting.

Monday night's meeting was the first of eight that will be held around
Philadelphia over the next month. But it was also the first time city
officials held a sustained conversation with residents about safe
injection sites since announcing in January they would allow one to
open if a nonprofit offered to undertake the project without city funding.

The crowd was incensed about the site and frustrated that the city has
taken so long to talk to residents about it. And they were alarmed by
a false rumor that the city was putting a safe injection site nearby.

City officials quickly dispelled that rumor: The city itself would not
operate a site, and no private entities have stepped forward yet with
a plan to open one.

Advocates for boosting the city's response to the drug crisis said
they were glad for the opportunity to set the record straight.

"It's about educating the community and dispelling stigma," said
Brooke Feldman, a harm-reduction advocate who has been in recovery for
13 years and grew up in the Northeast. Drug use might not be as
visible in her neighborhood as it is in Kensington, its neighbor to
the south, which has long borne the brunt of drug epidemics. Still,
she said: "I used drugs, I sold drugs, in Northeast Philadelphia, and
I understand the concern about attracting people using drugs to the
community. But people are using drugs and selling drugs and dying
right here in Northeast Philadelphia."

After the meeting, she said she wasn't surprised her neighbors had not
supported a safe injection site: a proposed methadone clinic several
years ago faced a similar backlash, and Councilman Bobby Henon sued to
keep it out of the district.

On Monday night, residents listened to a presentation explaining the
city's opioids plan, residents lined up to speak to the crowd or
submit questions on note cards. Some questions came from people in
addiction living at an encampment on Emerald Street in Kensington, who
watched the meeting on a live stream set up by advocates.

Some residents used the opportunity to ask questions about recovery
and treatment. City officials fielded skeptical comments on the
efficacy of medication-assisted treatment, explaining that the
treatment keeps more people in recovery than counseling alone.

Others spoke of children and relatives who had died of overdoses or
were struggling with addiction. One woman said she was frustrated that
she scrimped to afford medications for her son, who has diabetes:
"Where's the help for the people who work hard in this community?"

Still others said they felt a safe injection site would enable drug
use, but some seemed more open to the idea - just not in a residential
neighborhood, they said. "Why can't they go to a controlled
environment in a hospital?" one woman suggested to Farley. "That's
your best bet." Farley said her comment was "fair input."

Jeff Landsmann, a lineman from Fox Chase who attended the meeting
after getting a text an hour earlier from a neighbor, said later that
he was still opposed to a safe injection site, and hadn't heard
anything that convinced him otherwise.

But Elise Schiller of Germantown took the microphone and said her
daughter died of a heroin overdose in 2014. "I understand this very
well. And I don't like the stigma. Please don't be judgmental," she
said. "Rock bottom for opioid addiction is death. We can't wait until
they hit rock bottom for treatment."
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