Pubdate: Wed, 28 Mar 2018
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2018 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Aubrey Whelan


In Kensington, this much is clear: No other neighborhood in
Philadelphia has seen more overdose deaths, or more visible suffering
amid a city opioid epidemic that claimed an estimated 1,200 lives in
2017. Along with neighboring Fairhill, it occupies less than 2 percent
of Philadelphia's land area, but 18 percent of all city overdoses
occurred in that small space, according to an Inquirer analysis of
city data.

On Tuesday night, when city health officials arrive in the neighborhood 
for a community meeting on the epidemic, they'll come armed with dire 
statistics and information on the city's 18-point plan to fight the
crisis. But they won't have an answer to the question that's roiled the 
neighborhood since the plan was announced in January: Will Kensington 
host the first safe-injection site in the city, and possibly the

A place where people can use drugs under medical supervision and learn
about addiction treatment is the most controversial proposal in the
city's plan, spurring furious residents into shouting matches with
city officials at a similar meeting in Fox Chase last week.

But in Kensington, long considered the most logical location for a
site, the meeting will likely prove even more contentious. Along with
Fairhill, it has long borne the brunt of the current addiction crisis,
and bears the scars of past drug wars. Fueling residents' rage: They
have yet to hear specifics about a safe injection site, and that is
making the sales pitch even tougher.

"It's really hard to have a conversation because you are consistently
saying to people, 'I don't know,' " said Jose Benitez, the director of
Prevention Point, which sits on Kensington Avenue and is the city's
only needle exchange.

In the last year, after the city and Conrail blocked access to a gulch
alongside train tracks, four heroin encampments have sprawled under
the train bridges on Lehigh Avenue. More than 200 people live there
now, sleeping and using heroin in tents and makeshift structures and
sometimes openly, on the sidewalk.

Some Kensington residents say they welcome a safe injection site or
anything that would stop people from injecting drugs outside where
children can see them. Others have worried an injection site would
enable drug use and force their community to shoulder yet another
burden of the opioid epidemic.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez on Monday repeated her vow that a
site would never open in her district, which includes part of
Kensington. All told, at least 287 people fatally overdosed last year
across the neighborhoods she represents.

She faults city officials for coming to Kensington only after they
decided to allow a safe injection site in the city. "They made a
decision, and now they're coming back to talk to the community," she
said. "People look at this as an additional burden."

This map from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health shows where
most of the overdose deaths in 2017 occurred. An Inquirer analysis
indicates that 18 percent of the deaths occurred in Kensington and
neighboring Fairhill, though they occupy just 2 percent of the city's
land area. Officials are showing residents this map as they make their
pitch for the city's plans for the opioid epidemic, including at least
one safe injection site. Figures and locations shown below are
approximate, because the city would not give the Inquirer and Daily
News the data used to generate its map, citing patient

Part of Tuesday's meeting, city officials and advocates say, will
simply be about dispelling rumors, including the false belief that
safe injection sites distribute heroin.

Charito Morales, a registered nurse who treats people in addiction
under the bridges, hears the rumors and wants them cleared up.

She's ambivalent about a safe-injection site, but said she'd been
disappointed in the city's efforts so far. "Nobody has educated this
community to understand what is a safe injection clinic," she said.

Benitez, who will be a panelist at Tuesday night's meeting, said
there's time yet to make the case for a safe injection site.

"This is the first round of the conversation," he said. "There's a way
for the city, for us, to make this argument so people understand. We
have to set this up as very much a medical intervention."

That's largely the purpose of Tuesday night's meeting, said Alicia
Taylor, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Human Services.
"We're hoping to arm them with all the information that we have as far
as our strategy and what can be done and what we're doing," she said.
"We also want to give residents a chance to ask questions, and give
their input."

Tuesday night's meeting on the opioid crisis will be held from 6:30 to
8 p.m. at Congreso de Latinos Unidos, 2830 N. American St.
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MAP posted-by: Matt