We asked dozens of Safehouse stakeholders the same questions

Various Safehouse stakeholders pose for portraits with Kensington Voice. (Photos by Erin Blewett; Graphic by Jillian Bauer-Reese)

We interviewed more than 30 Safehouse stakeholders about their personal experiences with addiction, how they feel about the proposed overdose prevention site, and their ideal outcome for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia. Our goal was to bring people of all backgrounds to the same table to encourage conversation without judgment. Participants were selected based on their connection to the Safehouse initiative and their relationship to Kensington. 

This list is meant to draw attention to the nuances surrounding opinions on Safehouse and to humanize those involved. It is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list, but we hope it will foster an ongoing conversation in person and online using the #DiscussSafehouse hashtag.

Below is everyone we’ve talked to so far — from Philly’s mayor, district attorney, and councilpersons, to Kensington area residents, activists, medical professionals, and social workers, to people who use drugs in the neighborhood. In alphabetical order, here’s what they said.

*Editor’s Note: Interviews were edited for brevity and clarity. Language, such as the word “addict,” was treated as though it were in quotes. Two last names and faces were withheld for privacy reasons.

Alexander poses for a portrait with his dogs on October 4, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Alexander
Residence: Kensington
Title: Community member
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage 

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I had a brother who was an alcoholic. But it’s on the person to get better, to make that adjustment. You can only help them so much. Because if you keep on putting all of your time into that person, you’re going to be drained. You’ll need something to keep you going. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

If Safehouse is to help the people, I say, “Go and help them.” Some people may not use it, but a lot will. This is all about helping people.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

Right now, people with addictions don’t bother me, and I don’t bother them. I know they’re there. It is better to be informed than not to know.

Alicia Brenzenger poses for a portrait on September 17, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Alicia Brenzenger
Residence: North Philadelphia
Title: Community member
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I’m an addict, but I’m not an active drug user right now. I was homeless and living on the streets for three-and-a-half months before going into a safe haven. My husband and I were put in a couple’s place together. Currently, I’m also on the Vivitrol shot, so that’s been helping me. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I’m 50/50. I think Safehouse is good because a lot of people die from overdoses. I’ve saved 10 people’s lives in one day, and that was tough. Thank God, my husband and I had Narcan that day because if we hadn’t, some people would’ve died. Then again, Safehouse might cause people to use drugs more often because they can go somewhere safe to get high where the cops won’t bother them. So it’s good and bad. 

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

We need to help people by either getting them into rehab or getting them out of Kensington because a lot of people come here and get stuck. I’ve met people from North Carolina that heard Kensington had the best heroin, so they drove down here, and then they didn’t leave. 

Iris Castillo poses for a portrait on September 24, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Iris Castillo
Residence: Kensington
Title: Community member
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I’ve been dealing with addiction for about eight years. I just came from Mercy Hospital. I was sick, so I couldn’t stay, but I plan on going back. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I think it’s great. Out here, when someone overdoses, people just walk right by them. In Safehouse, if something were to happen to them, at least someone would be there to take care of them. Not like people out here — they just walk right by the people or try to dig in their pockets.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

We need more services for addicts — not just for the addicts, but also the homeless, and for other people who tend to be judged. If you’re in an emergency room, you’re treated like an addict. A lot of people learn about addiction by reading books, they don’t have experience with it. We need more people who have experience with addiction treating us.

Theresa Farrell poses for a portrait. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Theresa Farrell
Residence: Kensington
Title: Community organizer
Interviewed: By phone by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I experienced addiction in the past, but I knew how to get out. I went to 12-step meetings because I knew I needed help. I started going to AA and church. The religious part was powerful because it was eternal.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

Safehouse will be a waste of money. I don’t think the city should have even considered it here. I walk the streets every day and see people buying dope and other drugs. Everywhere I go, people are shooting drugs in their arms. They’re doing this on the railroad and back alleyways, and everywhere else.

After Prevention Point was approved, Prevention Point and surrounding shelters became nuisance properties. People go outside to shoot up, make a mess, and smoke K2. People can’t even control what’s going on in Kensington now without Safehouse. Residents are tired of what’s going on.

Store owners also have major problems with these nuisances. Storefronts are dirty, urinated on, trash-covered and full of feces, spit, odors, and clothing. Other residents and I are not going to let this take over our neighborhood. We want our neighborhood to be clean. We want our streets cleaned up, and the clothing and trash removed.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

We should support businesses and get the area cleaned up. As a community, we need to come together and say, “Enough is enough.” We want our community back. 

Also, we shouldn’t give people needles. If we take away the needles, we take away the opportunity. If I’m an addict and you give me needles to keep using, hell, I’m going to keep on using. But if you say “Theresa,” like my mom said to me in the past, “Why are you doing this?” — that hurts more. We should tell them, “Look, you have an addiction. Let’s see what I can do to help you get off these drugs before something happens to you.” 

I also think we should send these people back to where they came from because half of them weren’t raised here. Half of them are not from this community — they heard that Kensington has drugs, and then they wind up staying here and keep on using them.

Brooke Feldman poses for a portrait on October 8, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Brooke Feldman
Residence: Glenside, PA
Title: Community organizer; employee at an addiction treatment program in the 19134 ZIP code
Interviewed: By phone by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I’m a person in recovery, so I have my own lived experience with addiction and, thankfully, recovery. I also had a mother who struggled with addiction and lived in Kensington, who died from an overdose when I was 12 years old.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion?

When I first heard the idea of an overdose prevention site, it baffled me. Even as someone who was up to speed on harm reduction strategies and philosophies, the idea of a sanctioned place where people could use drugs seemed to bump up against everything I had been taught. It was through my own research — reading the existing literature about overdose prevention sites, talking to other folks, and learning more about it — that I came to fully understand the value of having an overdose prevention site as one of an array of strategies to address the addiction crisis. 

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

For me, the ideal outcome is that preventable overdose deaths are not happening — that’s number one. As far as the role of Safehouse, my hope is that once it’s in operation, the community will see the benefits not only to people who are using the site to inject drugs and access resources and services but also to the community, through the decrease of discarded syringes on the ground and the decrease of public consumption. 

More broadly, we need to improve our infrastructure to support people who are struggling with substance use disorders of all kinds of drugs. Currently, we have a system in place where if somebody is seeking treatment or the type of treatment they want, it’s not easy to get. I hope that we see an improved system where people who are seeking treatment and want to engage in a recovery process can access what they need, when they need it, for as long as they need it. 

Yasmine Forsaca poses for a portrait on September 24, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Yasmine Forsaca
Residence: Kensington
Title: Community member
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I’m an addict, and I’m always going to be an addict. I just came from being homeless — that’s the worst experience. 

Sometimes I have to find somewhere to “get it done” and sometimes I have to hide from friends and family. Most people like me want to be as discreet as we can, but right now, we don’t have anywhere to go. People are cursing us out and kicking us out of places, but we don’t have any other choice but to do it in front of everybody.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I support it 100%. The kids won’t be able to see drug use. The elderly won’t be able to see it. Even family members won’t see it.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

Ideally, there would be more support. There would be more help than just putting us in a place to get our necessities done. We could use more financial help and help getting more resources.

Ronda Goldfein poses for a portrait on October 4, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Ronda Goldfein
Residence: Philadelphia
Title: Vice President of Safehouse; Executive Director of the AIDS Law Project
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I don’t necessarily have a personal connection to addiction other than being with the AIDS Law Project for 26 years. Through my work there, I have seen clients struggle with all kinds of health conditions. When folks are struggling, it makes it so much harder for them to live their lives. At the AIDS Law Project and at Safehouse, we’re committed to the notion that struggling with a health condition shouldn’t prevent you from having a full and rich life. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I believe that supervised consumption will save lives — no question. I reached that conclusion by looking at research about other sites all over the world. I visited sites in Toronto, Vancouver, Paris, and Zurich. 

It’s basic: If we can offer proximity to health care when a person begins to show signs of overdose, and we can stop them from dying, that’s a win. We also hope there will be an ongoing trust relationship — that someone can come in, see that we’re nonjudgmental, and look for help if that’s what they need. The goal is to get people on a path to stability.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

We see Safehouse as one small piece of a larger response to the overdose crisis. We want to do our part in Philadelphia — to establish that it’s lawful and that it’s safe — and send that message across the United States. Philadelphia may be leading the nation in this initiative, but the overdose crisis is certainly not an isolated problem.

Name: Perry Halkitis
Residence: Newark, NJ
Title: Safehouse advisory committee member; Dean of the Rutgers University School of Public Health
Interviewed: By email by Henry Savage 

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I’ve worked with the LGBTQ population for the last 25 years, which has put me very close to the area of addiction — specifically how gay men often confront addictions, whether that be to alcohol or other drugs. At the beginning of my career, I spent a lot of time focusing on the role that crystal meth played in the lives of gay men. I still study that now. That’s something that touched me as I saw friends’ and colleagues’ lives torn apart by substance use. Individuals with amazing careers, social lives, economic lives, and personal lives, have their lives chipped away and torn apart by becoming addicted. My connection to addiction is really personal and heartbreaking. It’s a powerful one for me, and one that I think has really undermined the well-being of the gay population.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

Safehouse plays an incredibly important role in the world of addiction in the Philadelphia area, in Pennsylvania, in our country, and in our world. The ability for drug users to effectively and safely use substances reinforces that addiction is a complicated biopsychosocial phenomenon and that just saying “no” to drugs is an overly simplistic and unrealistic approach to helping people terminate their use of substances. Harm reduction techniques and creating safe spaces for individuals is incredibly important. Safehouse is important and should be a model for other entities.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

My goal is for nobody to die of overdoses, and that happens through open and honest conversations about addiction and not stigmatizing addiction ⁠— having people feel comfortable talking about their substance use with their families, friends, and religious leaders, and their political leaders not pushing them aside. 

People don’t wake up one morning and decide they are going to become addicted to a substance, whether it be opioids, methamphetamines, alcohol, or tobacco. They get to that because of life circumstances. 

What do we need to do⁠ as researchers, counselors, and as humans, is create safe spaces for people to confront these addictions and not cast them aside. More often than not, others cast them aside, which often leads to their demise through overdose.

Sterling Johnson poses for a portrait on October 10, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Sterling Johnson
Residence: South Philadelphia
Title: Safehouse advisory committee member; organizer for ACT-UP Philadelphia 
Interviewed: By phone by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction? 

I’ve been in recovery for nine years, starting around 2010. I struggled for many years and have been in and out. Mainly, I’ve had issues with alcohol and prescription pills. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I support Safehouse because I’m a person in recovery. I’ve seen a lot of people either die of overdoses or suicide. I understand that the way that people recover is by us creating the conditions for recovery. 

I’ve also seen other interventions not work. For example, opioid prescriptions are decreasing, but heroin and fentanyl overdoses are rising. Some of the things we are trying are actually making the situation worse. We have to do something different.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

My ideal outcome is to find a way to have an appropriate response to drug crises, which means that when people are in danger of an overdose, they are met with compassion, a system that understands them, and time to get better. The ideal situation is really an approach with every system from criminal justice, housing, and healthcare.

Larry Kaiser poses for a portrait on September 20, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Larry Kaiser
Residence: Main Line, PA
Title: Safehouse advisory committee member 
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

It’s unusual for any of us not to know somebody who has suffered a loss. Most recently, my twin stepdaughters went to the funeral of a friend from school who unfortunately overdosed. I can think of a number of other friends — at least four or five others — who’ve lost kids to overdoses. These are not people who are living here in the city; these are people on the Main Line who are high functioning professionals who’ve lost children to overdose. It’s unusual, I think, for any of us not to have some knowledge.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

The fact of the matter is that people are using narcotics, and there’s no moral judgment involved. If those are what people choose to use, there are lots of reasons for that, and⁠ so be it. I’m a physician, and we don’t make judgments — we help people. There’s no judgment involved here. 

If we can set up what we’ve proposed, which is a safe injection site where people who choose to use can come and use, we’re not providing drugs to anybody. We are offering medical-assisted treatment if they so desire. We will also provide other health care so people who have wounds can be taken care of. We will have nurse practitioners and potentially some physicians there, too. 

The big thing here is that we want to prevent people from dying from an overdose. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of fentanyl here in Philadelphia, and the potency of fentanyl is so much greater than heroin. People don’t necessarily know what they’re getting. From a medical standpoint, we can offer people a place where if they have chosen to use these narcotics, and they overdose, they can be saved.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

I think the ideal outcome is that we will have a place where people know they can come and not be judged, where they can receive medical-assisted treatment if they’re interested. They know they can come to a place where if they do overdose accidentally, people can save them. We can take care of some of their health needs, as well. It’s a medical facility. 

Jim Kenney poses for a portrait on September 20, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Jim Kenney
Residence: Philadelphia
Title: Mayor of Philadelphia
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

A few of my family members have had issues, but none have overdosed and passed away. I grew up in South Philly back in the ’70s and had a heroin house on my street. There weren’t many heroin users in the neighborhood at that time. This was like Eastern South Philly ⁠— mostly a drinking area, not a drug area. But some guys lived in a heroin house in a row house in the middle of the block. There were all kinds of fights and a lot of noise and mayhem. People would come to buy drugs, park on the street, and some of the fathers would puncture their tires. Just that kind of back and forth stuff. And as a matter of fact, one of the guys who lived in the house beat the other to death with a baseball bat. His name was Chicken Arm Louie — he had a withered arm. When they carried his body out, the neighbors all cheered. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

The most important thing we can do is save lives. Right now, people are dying, and we can’t help them. People are shooting up alone or in desolate, secluded places. If they overdose, we’re going to lose them. The ability to get them to treatment and back on their feet is absent. So the most important thing we can do is save people’s lives and then try to expose them to services, opportunities for a bed, treatment, and help.

The other thing people complain about is the needles in the street and injection in front of kids. An overdose prevention site would cut down on the number of syringes in the street and the number of children seeing people inject in public. I recognize nobody wants a site like this in their neighborhood and that’s a normal reaction, but it has to go where the people are using drugs. If you put it somewhere they’re not, they’re not going to be able to get there. I think it’s worth a chance — it’s worth a shot.

But we still need to deal with the public’s concerns, and we need to address the security issues. We also need to address the legal issues. What do we tell our police? People are entering the facility holding illegal substances. Do we tell them to turn their heads and not to pay attention? I don’t want to see anybody get arrested, but that’s possible. So we’ve got to work our way through it steadily and with a clear head and an open mind, and hopefully, we can save some lives.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

The pharma companies need to pay for what they’ve done to our country — not just Philadelphia. Every community is dealing with this in one way or another. These folks at Purdue are greedy pigs, and they were willing to put people’s health and lives at risk for money in their pockets. I can assure you they’re going to have a difficult time getting into heaven — it’s going to be a really difficult time.

Larry Krasner poses for a portrait on October 8, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Larry Krasner
Residence: Philadelphia
Title: District Attorney of Philadelphia
Interviewed: By email by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I am very close to people who have suffered from, and in some cases, overcome addiction. Their experiences convinced me that people suffering from addiction are no better and no worse than those of us who have been blessed to avoid that disease. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

My stance on harm reduction sites like Safehouse is best captured in the words of a mother who lost her son to overdose: “You have to stay alive to recover.” Having seen the success of Prevention Point in saving lives by reducing the spread of fatal diseases for decades and having heard the resistance to their clean needle exchange and other harm reduction during the early years, I know harm reduction works. 

Having studied and visited harm reduction centers in Vancouver, Berlin, and Lisbon, I know the type of harm reduction proposed for Safehouse also works. It is not a complete solution ⁠— there are many other types of responses we need to address, but it’s a start.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

As district attorney, I see no reason to prosecute a responsibly run site like Safehouse. Prosecuting idealistic medical students and activists for trying to save lives seems, to me, wrong. It also seems inconsistent with Pennsylvania law, which specifically provides a defense for actions that, while arguably illegal, prevent much greater harm.

I intend to continue pursuing Big Pharma’s bloody hands for their role in instigating and supplying this tragic crisis for profit. We will continue to collaborate with city efforts to do the same. I fully support using the money saved from reducing incarceration to provide public health services that reduce addiction ⁠— housing, treatment, psychological counseling, and education, among others.

And, I will continue to pursue traditional law enforcement efforts in conjunction with state and federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutorial authorities to apprehend and prosecute professional drug dealers whose crimes are not at a low level and the product of addiction. The success we had at Kip Street is just one example of a serious prosecution and uprooting of a decadeslong, professional drug dealing organization based upon the use of wiretaps and thorough investigative tactics. Stay tuned.

Rosalind Lopez poses for a portrait on October 8, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Rosalind Lopez
Residence: Kensington
Title: Community organizer and activist
Interviewed: By phone by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I had two brothers who were in addiction. Neither of them injected drugs. They used other methods of getting high. They both died within the last year, but not from an overdose.

My brother Steven suffered a heart attack about four years ago. A year later, he was diagnosed with liver failure. He was not a candidate for a transplant because of his addiction. The doctors said he needed to be clean, and he found it difficult to remain clean.

The last time Steven used drugs, his liver completely bled out, and it bled for days until he died. But there was nothing the doctors could do for him because he was too weak, and he was ineligible for a transplant. He passed away on his birthday. He never admitted he was an addict. He never admitted that he used drugs. It’s hard to help someone who doesn’t acknowledge their problem. 

My other brother, Mike, was also an addict, but his death was unrelated to his addiction. He died due to depression. He had lost his only daughter last March and became really depressed.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

My brothers are the reasons why I oppose Safehouse. I believe that people need to hit their “bottom” before they can recover from addiction. A lot of people argue that sleeping on the streets is someone’s “bottom.”

But if someone is receiving help for their needs, why would they leave the streets? I think living on the street should not be an option for people. They either should be in a hospital or with family. But even that’s not an easy feat for some families, who may be tired of the lies and the stealing. That’s what my brothers did, and everybody in my family was tired of my brothers’ lies and the broken promises.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

Shelters are clearly not working for people, because they remain outside of these shelters. I hate to say this, but people with these addictions should be declared mentally incapacitated to the extent that they cannot make their own medical decisions, should be institutionalized in a hospital, or made to go to some type of recovery home.

Arresting people is not the answer, either. But people need rehabilitation centers where they cannot sign themselves out until they have completed deep treatment.

Luis poses for a portrait on September 14, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Full Name: Luis
Residence: Kensington
Title: Community member
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I used to use a lot of heroin, but now I’d rather smoke K2 than smoke or shoot up dope. A drug is a drug regardless, but I feel more comfortable using K2 over dope. People are dying over dope, although Narcan is taking care of a lot of that.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

It’s something that the city should seriously look into. We have an epidemic of opioids right now. I think Safehouse is a good idea because it will keep those of us that use drugs in one place instead of in the streets where kids can see us.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

This heroin epidemic is going to keep going. If people were put in Safehouse, they could go in there and use without the kids seeing them and Safehouse could get rid of the needles. But people don’t see it that way. 

Charles Manor poses for a portrait on October 4, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Charles Manor
Residence: Darby, PA
Title: Community activist
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

Not personally. I usually visit the Kensington area looking for friends that I know get heroin and stuff like that. I make sure if they need a place to live for a night to wash up and change clothes, that they have it.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I think it’s good to some degree, but it’s also aiding their addiction. It could help those who are homeless or those who are overdosing on the street. But I also tell my friends all the time, “I’m not paying you to do drugs.” So it’s a good thing in some ways, and in other ways, it may be a bad thing.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

An ideal outcome would be for people to have a safe haven, instead of sleeping on the street. There should be homes for people where they would have somewhere to lay their heads. But if it’s something that’s going to happen with the community, then the community should say, “If you ain’t in here by this time, then we can’t help.” Some people would just rather lay on the streets and enjoy their high.

Bonnie Milas poses for a portrait on October 4, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Bonnie Milas
Residence: Yardley, PA
Title: Physician
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I’ve written two op-eds trying to convince family members of people suffering from substance use disorders, purchasing drugs off the street, or chronically on pain medication, that they should be aware of the risk of an overdose and have Narcan immediately available. 

My first piece talked about the importance of having a well-thought-out and rehearsed plan in the home and being prepared to enlist basic life support skills, like rescue breathing. If the person doesn’t have a pulse, Narcan will never be absorbed, so they will need to be given chest compressions.

My second piece advocated for Safehouse. My youngest son died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in Philadelphia. Safehouse was not an option at that time. Having lost actually two adult children during the opioid crisis, and one here in Philadelphia, I know from a personal standpoint what it’s like to come upon somebody who has overdosed. I think we should be supporting this initiative.

There are limitations to current treatment modalities. As a cardiac anesthesiologist, I administer large doses of fentanyl intravenously on a daily basis, and I know full well that individuals are highly likely to be unconscious afterward, and will stop breathing within 30 to 90 seconds. I don’t think most of the public understands how quickly that happens. Again, they need to be prepared. So I have both professional and personal experience within my family, with that. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

Philadelphia has an opportunity to lead the way nationally, as there are no current safehouses in the United States. Internationally, [there are almost 120 legal sites] in operation. The fact that we’ve lost so many lives in Philadelphia means that now is the time to try something new. 

In other places, safehouses are a proven success. There are no recorded deaths in a safe injection facility worldwide. Based on that alone, it’s time to move forward. Philadelphia, and the Kensington neighborhood, in particular, has an opportunity to set the pace at which this can transpire nationally. Other states will be looking at us to see how things go.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

I don’t want anyone else to die. So, number one, I’d like to have fentanyl and carfentanil 100% off the streets everywhere in the United States. Ideally, no open-air drug markets would not exist either. I would like to see safehouses in high use areas. Third, as most overdoses happen in a home setting, I would like family members to be well-prepared with thought-out and rehearsed action plans.

As a physician, first and foremost, my focus is stemming the loss of life. Let’s take away fentanyl, take away open-air drug markets, and provide a safe place for people to use drugs and be rescued, hopefully, go on to treatment, be tested, and be supported.

Brandon Moore poses for a portrait on October 4, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Brandon Moore
Residence: Norris Square
Title: Community member; father of four
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I’ve got family members who are on crack. Some of them inject themselves and some sniff. For me, it’s a regular thing, though. I see it out here every day. Sometimes when I come out here late at night in the park, I catch them laid out.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

It would be better because then there won’t be that many overdoses. They get high, but at least they’re doing it somewhere where people can watch them. If you walk down there on Allegheny right now, they’re just laid out. At the end of the day, we’ve got kids that are out here, too. I’d rather have people there than spread all over the park. 

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

It’s hard. The city and community try so much. They did clean-outs, where they swept everybody and took everybody out. Two or three weeks later, they went from Somerset Station to Allegheny Station. There’s not really anything we can do. I wish I could help, but I can’t. 

Nicole O’Donnell poses for a portrait on September 18, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Nicole O’Donnell
Residence: Delaware County, PA
Title: Certified recovery specialist at Penn Hospital 
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I’m in recovery, I lost a sister to overdose, and I work in the field. I have experience with opioid addiction. I personally overdosed twice. Now, I work at Penn, where I meet people in the emergency room that have just overdosed. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I do outreach with Angels in Motion and am on the board of AIM. Being out there where I see people in severe active addiction and aren’t able to get out of it makes me feel like we need somewhere for people to use safely and then engage in whatever comes next. Many people have trauma that they’re medicating. We can’t engage with them if they’re not breathing. 

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

My ideal outcome is to engage more people ⁠— not even so much in treatment, but in understanding that they’re cared about. 

Jon Orens poses for a portrait on September 26, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Jon Orens
Residence: Logan Square
Title: Real estate developer; founder of the Daniel J. Orens Foundation 
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

My son fought an 11-year battle with addiction, and I lost him in November of 2016, so I am fully ingrained in this world. I never struggled with drug addiction in my life, but it got me through my son. I wish it happened to me instead of my son.

At the very end of “The Exorcist,” the possessed girl kills the actual exorcist, and the younger priest comes out of the bathroom and grabs her. He starts shaking her, screaming at the devil, “Take me, not her!” That’s the way you feel as a parent when your child is a victim of drug addiction and an overdose. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I look at both sides of every argument. I generally don’t take a position until I fully understand what I am considering. I hear everything. I’m very empathetic, and I see and understand how people feel. It’s astonishing to me that we’re having this argument over Safehouse. We’re all on the same team. Everybody is trying to help to figure out a way to solve this epidemic. So, the people that are arguing with each other are on the same team. 

The “bad guys and gals” are on the other side — those are the drug cartels, the drug dealers, and Big Pharma. We are the good guys and gals, yet we are fighting with each other instead of the enemy. 

I can hear people saying, “You’re enabling or condoning this activity.” However, I say to them, “When someone with addiction has drugs on their person, if you don’t want them to go to Safehouse, what should they do?” They suggest that they should get help instead of shooting up.

This tells me they don’t understand addiction. They don’t know what it’s like to have your life taken over by a chemical change in your brain. A level-headed person who is lucky enough not to have this problem doesn’t understand how a person with addiction thinks or feels. 

I remember talking to an interventionist about my son years ago. I remember saying, “When I was his age, I didn’t do the terrible things he was doing or saying.” The interventionist said to me, “Jon, you keep looking at your son as your younger self, and he’s not your younger self. He’s a totally different person.”

I don’t think most people understand that somebody who is physically, mentally, and psychologically addicted doesn’t have the wherewithal to just say “No.” This is a whole different ball game. 

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

My ideal outcome is, frankly, unrealistic. It’s to eradicate this insidious disease from the face of the earth forever. You gotta shoot for the stars.

But honestly, this epidemic is a mountain of a problem, and there’s no way that this mountain can be knocked down with one punch. There’s a lot of different things that have to happen. Safehouse is one of many, but it doesn’t solve addiction. What it does do is give people a chance to stay alive until, hopefully, one day, they find an opportunity for full-term recovery. You can’t get better if you are not alive!

I wish my son went to a place like Safehouse, that terrible night – he might still be alive today. Instead, he went to his apartment, and he used alone. His fiance was in another room asleep. They had plenty of Narcan, but no one there to administer it on the spot. No one was there to monitor them, and nobody was there to measure the dose. When she woke up and found him, it was too late. I wish he went to a safe place instead of shooting up on his own.

Dennis Payne poses for a portrait on October 4, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Dennis Payne
Residence: Kensington
Title: Community activist
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

First of all, I’m a recovering addict and former dealer. I was both. I lived like a royal prince when I was doing it. That was part of what attracted me to that way of life. I’ve been clean since winter of ’84, right before the new year came in. Now, I’ve already kicked my drug habit and continue on with my life and sobriety. My family has been dealing with homelessness and alcohol and drug addiction since about ’68 or ’69, too. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

One of my old family beliefs is, “We don’t use drugs to kick drugs.” I don’t believe in helping somebody facilitate a drug addiction. I won’t be the two hands that hold the links together so they can continue their addiction safely. I’ll be the pair of bolt cutters cutting the chain of addiction to help them back to their true way of life, which they should have been on in the first place. 

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

People need to learn how to accurately interpret some situations regarding mental health, physical disabilities, and drug addictions. We also need new laws dealing with individuals who choose to abuse any medication, be it legal or illegal. If someone overdoses in public, we need a new law that will automatically declare that individual incompetent of taking care of their own life. This is because they not only put their own life in jeopardy, but they put our communities in jeopardy by threatening to other people’s personal health and safety as far as crimes taking place.

Jeanmarie Perrone poses for a portrait on October 7, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Jeanmarie Perrone
Residence: Newtown Square, PA
Title: Emergency physician at the University of Pennsylvania
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

My nephew suffered from heroin use and opioid use disorder and is currently in recovery. I am very grateful for that. Watching that evolve, after I was already involved in opioid work, I went through the same stages of anger that any mother or relative goes through. I relate to a lot of concepts that occur with recovery, namely wanting him to be clean. I wanted him to be sent away for a long time and be off all meds. The idea of medication-assisted treatment as a parent or aunt seemed ridiculous. 

Having delved into this issue by looking at evidence and understanding these medications, I better understand why they need to be part of the equation. I’m not anti-abstinence, but I don’t believe abstinence is going to work for a 19 or 20-year-old — period. It might work for a very motivated 50-year-old, but it’s just not going to work for younger age groups. Abstinence practices shouldn’t be allowed for young people because they present such a devastating risk.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I think the general evidence for Safehouse based on models in other countries clearly is more of a resource than any kind of detriment, and that can be explained, I think, to community people. It’s going to decrease litter, it’s going to decrease open substance use. It’s going to help people get into treatment or, at least, offer harm reduction. We’re a little spoiled here in Philadelphia because we already have Prevention Point doing a lot of those things. This is one more place where these services can be accessed, which is also safe. We shouldn’t have to be reviving overdoses in the Amtrak bathroom.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

Medications play an important role in stabilizing a person’s withdrawal symptoms. Many people can’t access care because they’re in a three-hour window between using. If you don’t offer them medication that can stabilize that, it’s really going to be impossible, literally. People can’t pick up the phone and make an appointment for a week from now, navigate insurance, navigate all of the issues, and then be working in these three-hour windows when they’re okay. So medication has to be able to be a permanent part of that.

But secondly, I think the answer to the opioid crisis is the voice of the recovery community. We can augment that voice by augmenting peers and increasing the number of people who can tend to a patient one-on-one, whether they are going into treatment for the first time or the hundredth time.

It’s also a different experience when a person can look up to someone else who has recovered from addiction. Then, they may still stumble or use again, but they know they will not be shamed or stigmatized by someone who’s been there. 

The absolute most important thing is to link Safehouse with ongoing work at Prevention Point, what we’re doing in the hospital emergency departments and accessible medication.

Roz Pichardo poses for a portrait on September 14, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Roz Pichardo
Residence: Kensington
Title: Community activist; founder of Operation Save Our City
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage 

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

Addiction runs in my family. I have two cousins who are no longer here because of their addiction. I have another female cousin who is still in her addiction, and her mom is always worried about her. I have another cousin who is constantly overdosing, still dealing with addiction.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

Safehouse is needed in Kensington and throughout the city — not just one place. I think it’s going to relieve some stress from a lot of the people that work in the harm reduction community. We’re constantly ripping and running, reversing overdoses left and right. 

We have data, but it’s not enough to stop people from shooting up out in public, and we’re just trying to avoid children being constantly traumatized by what they see on the train, on the El stops, or on the sidewalk in front of people’s homes. If they had a safe space to use, people don’t have to see this in public. Also, more lives can be saved if the batch is bad. Safehouse will be providing other services too. It’s so much more than a place to use drugs.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

I’m hoping people understand that even though we have drug users in this community, it doesn’t mean that drug users can’t be productive. It can save lives, and also reduce stigma. From shooting up to snorting, however they use their drug, people will not be stigmatized.

I feel like this will be something so positive in the neighborhood. We needed these services 20 years ago, as the epidemic was rampant back then. But now it’s more prevalent because people are dispersed all over and everybody sees it. Now there’s no solution other than Safehouse. 

Maria Quiñones-Sanchez poses for a portrait on September 26, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Maria Quiñones-Sanchez
Residence: Norris Square 
Title: 7th District Councilwoman
Interviewed: In person by Diana Cristancho 

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I have unfortunately had to bury several cousins and uncles and other folks who have fallen to addiction. I recently had someone who came out of jail, and within that same weekend, he overdosed because his body was not adjusted. So this is, for many folks, very personal. In fact, that’s one of the things I tell the health commissioner. They’d say numbers, and I’d say, “I know people. How many funerals have you gone to this year?”

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I think it’s very important that most of the harm reduction efforts the city is undertaking have been piloted in my district. When I first got elected, Prevention Point was operating out of a mobile unit. We moved them into an office and then to a full-fledged clinic. The whole harm reduction effort and movement have been one that I have been a part of and have advocated for more funding for. 

I’ve also advocated for reforms on access to treatment. All the barriers that we’ve broken down — the identification requirement, all of the different things that were requirements for treatment, part of that reform — I’ve worked on. I’ve said from day one that if a safe injection site was going to be part of a reform, a part of our mental health services, that that’s something that I would consider. Not in isolation and not as a panacea.

Right now, as it stands, 25% of our treatment beds go unused every single day. That’s important. As it relates to Kensington, the community in Kensington has been incredibly supportive of letting us set up Prevention Point there and respite centers. I just feel that it is oversaturated with all of this work when we promised the community that we were going to keep them safe, and we have not done that. Until we can restore the quality of life that we promised them when they supported us along the way, I’m going to stand with them in saying, “No more.” 

Right now, we want our neighborhood back, and having 500 people in the neighborhood who are in active addiction is not an acceptable notion. I’ve visited Toronto. I understand that if this is a medical intervention, it should be done through a medical facility. If the city wants to do this like the needle exchange program, it should fund it, lead it, and own it — not separate itself and say this nonprofit is going to do it and the liability is on them. That, to me, is not leadership. The reason the needle exchange has been effective is that Gov. Rendell, when he was mayor, was the first one to fund it. The models being discussed now are not models that I would support.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

My ideal outcome is continuing to lower barriers and access and challenging notions that the only way folks get out of addiction is through medically assisted treatment. They try to tell you that that’s the gold standard, but the idea that the pharmaceutical companies who created this problem are the only solution out of it is not one that I subscribe to. 

I want to look at cannabis and other things that don’t give money to the same people who got us into this. Last week, the administration finally put out a request for proposal. We have about a thousand recovery houses. I’ve been saying this for the longest time: If we help fund some of these recovery houses, we can make them adequate by adding a bed, adding a bathroom, and upgrading the kitchen. We finally are doing that.

I think the piece that’s been missing from this is a plan for reuniting folks in addiction with their families. Everything that we’re doing isolates the person in addiction. It costs us $28,000 to house and provide wraparound services for one person in addiction. If they have a family, and this I say from personal experience, too, how do we help families engage with their loved ones while they’re in their life journey? I have a situation right now with an uncle who’s in addiction, and the whole family supports him, and we talk about it. 

We need to support families to get there because for recovery to be possible, it means somebody has to love them. They have to love themselves, but for them to love themselves, they need somebody to love them. And so, for us to think that government and isolated systems provide a pathway for folks is not accurate. We’re not currently funding anything that looks at family reunification.

Marcus Ramos poses for a portrait on October 4, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Marcus Ramos
Residence: Northern Liberties
Title: City worker
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I see it every day, especially in some of the parks I work in. Whether it’s talking to the addicts or just seeing the mess that they’re going through, it really sucks to see that. I also work in parks. A lot of the children walk through the parks and see that too. I want to see a change.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion?

I don’t know if I really agree with it because if you compare heroin to other drugs, there aren’t safe houses for people smoking weed or anything else. But obviously, heroin is different. Once you’re addicted, you’re addicted. At that point, it becomes an illness. So, it’s very controversial, but I think we should try it out and see how it works. If it doesn’t work, we should take it away.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

Take it somewhere else. Obviously, no matter where you go, nobody’s going to stop selling drugs, and nobody’s going to stop making money. But get it out of the area where there is a lot of kids here. There are a lot of schools here.

Ed Rendell poses for a portrait on September 25, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Ed Rendell
Residence: East Falls 
Title: Safehouse board member; Safehouse incorporator
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I do have a personal connection that got me involved in this, although if Jose and Ronda had come to me, and they asked me, I would’ve gotten involved regardless. 

One of my college friends had a son named John. I knew John from the time he was a two or three-year-old little boy. He was a good looking, bright, incredibly personable kid who had great friends and who would have been a success in any endeavor he chose in life. 

John grew up and went to Cornell, where he was a star lacrosse player. Then he got injured playing lacrosse, and he started taking painkillers. Opioids. The pattern is familiar: He became addicted, fought the addiction, went into treatment programs, and had some measure of temporary success. But he always relapsed.

One day when my friend and his wife were vacationing in the Caribbean, they came home to find John dead in their bed. They asked me to speak at his funeral.

I did, and I said that up until John’s death, the opioid epidemic was something I read about in the newspapers. I would say to myself, “This is horrible,” but would go back to my personal business without doing a thing to try to influence the spread of it. I said, “But when John died, it became personal for me.” The only way we’re going to stop it is if it becomes personal for all of us.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

If you read the Crack House Statute, in no way did it intend to cover people who weren’t dealing narcotics. If you want to use Safehouse to inject yourself in front of trained medical personnel who will save you if you overdose, you have to bring your own narcotics in. We never touch narcotics. We don’t aid anybody in injecting themselves. So it’s clear to me that the statute never intended that type of activity to be made illegal. It particularly never intended to have volunteer medical personnel, nurses, and doctors arrested for running a crack house when that clearly is not what they’re doing. So number one, I believe it’s legal. 

Number two — and I’ve said this publicly — even were it illegal, I don’t believe it should be prosecuted. The US Attorney is somewhat hypocritical by saying that if it’s illegal, they’re going to prosecute it, and if people wanted that to change, they should go have Congress change the law. I would like to see Congress change the law, but that would take years. 

In 2017, 1,217 Philadelphians died of overdoses, mostly because they injected by themselves. So while we’re waiting three years to change the law — if we could change it and with this Congress and this president — another 3,600 people are going to die. That’s unacceptable. 

Also, marijuana is still a schedule one federal drug, yet the US Attorney chooses not to prosecute those cases. They don’t even make arrests. Why? Because they think the harm is not sufficient to warrant the use of the criminal justice system. Clearly, Safehouse doesn’t induce harm, it induces harm reduction. 

I have said that even if the court said that it’s illegal, I would go ahead and do it. When I authorized Prevention Point, the State Health Commissioner called me to say that the state was going to send troopers in to make arrests at Prevention Point. So I talked with the health commissioner, and said, “Don’t go to Prevention Point. Come down to City Hall to Room 212 — that’s my office. Arrest me first.” They never did it, and they never made any arrests.

When Rosa Parks wouldn’t get up and move to the all-Black section of the bus, she was violating the law. But she did it to bring about social change. And I would be willing, if need be, to go to jail to make this point. I don’t think it’ll ever come to that, but I would be willing to do it.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

We have always been clear that Safehouse is a very slight response to the opioid crisis. It deals with the symptoms, but it doesn’t cure the crisis. Curing the crisis would take decisive action. We should punish drug companies both civilly and perhaps even criminally, for distributing opioids in far in excess of what’s necessary. Legal actions should be taken against doctors who knowingly prescribe opioids in unnecessarily large doses. A friend of mine had a hernia operation that was given a prescription for 30 OxyContin. I’ve had five hernia operations in my life, and for my last three, I took Tylenol. Doctors ought to be prosecuted when they knowingly violate the law.

Also, we ought to change medical school curricula. Medical schools need to teach doctors about the appropriate dosage to prescribe, and that should be a part of every medical school in the country.

Finally, we ought to have education programs about how painkilling pills can eventually lead to heroin use, overdose, and death. We need a widespread response. We can’t stop something like this in its entirety, but we can reduce the usage of opioids dramatically. 

Bryant Rivera poses for a portrait on September 18, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Bryant Rivera
Residence: Delaware County, PA
Title: Certified recovery specialist at Penn Hospital 
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I’m a person in long-term recovery. I have 11 years of continuous sobriety. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

It’s personal to me. I lost my father and my younger brother two years ago to overdose. I have overdosed several times in my active addiction and feel that if there was more places like these, my father or my brother would’ve used them. I could still have my father, and he could still be around to see his grandkids. It’s something that I believe in wholeheartedly. 

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

My ideal outcome would be for everyone to meet people where they’re at. Stop pulling people in different directions or telling them this pathway works, or this pathway doesn’t work. Everybody has individual paths, and we have to embrace them. We can only save people that are breathing. 

Carol Rostucher poses for a portrait on September 27, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Carol Rostucher
Residence: Northeast Philadelphia
Title: President of Angels in Motion
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

My son has a substance use disorder. He lived on the streets on and off for five years, about four years ago. He found recovery for quite some time, and then he had a slip. I guess I’d call it a relapse now. But it’s not just him. My participants with Angels in Motion — all of them — have become family. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I totally believe in Safehouse because I believe in saving lives. Everybody has a right to find recovery and live a life that they’re happy in. They can’t if they’re dead. I had somebody who I was very close to relapse after four years. They were going to use drugs, and I couldn’t stop them. They told me there was no stopping them. And that’s it. When they’re locked and loaded, you can’t stop them. Their mind has taken over, and they’re going to do it.

You can’t stop them, but what you can do is give them a safe place to use. Especially people in recovery, who haven’t done fentanyl in a long time or ever, and are more prone to overdose. If no one is there, they’re going to die. This disease takes over the mind — it’s so controlling.

People don’t want to be on the streets. They’re not out there partying and using and having fun. They don’t have a freaking bathroom. They don’t have toilet paper. They don’t want to tell anybody that they’re having this slip, that they’re having this mental breakdown, that it’s taken over their mind and they can’t control it. Because they’re embarrassed and ashamed. 

If they had a place they could go to use without judgment, if they overdosed, they could be brought back to life and have that chance to enter recovery again.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

The ideal outcome would be to accept people where they are and understand that maybe they’re not ready to enter recovery right at this minute. That doesn’t mean they’re disposable. They’re still people, they’re still somebody’s loved one, and they still matter. The stigma associated with addiction is horrendous. 

Families are going to be the way that stigma can change. Families referring to their child as “my addicted daughter,” “my addicted son,” uphold stigma. I’ve never once referred to my child as “my addicted son.” He’s my son. He’s a tattoo artist. He’s talented, he’s funny, and he’s mischievous. Yes, people have substance use disorder, but they need to define themselves as something other than “addicted,” because they’re something else. If my son, who is a college student, had diabetes, I wouldn’t refer to him as my diabetic son. Families need to stop and think. We can end the stigma if we join together and stop stigmatizing our own loved ones. 

Elise Schiller poses for a portrait on September 19, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Elise Schiller
Residence: Germantown
Title: Community organizer; author
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I lost my daughter to a heroin overdose. I am in favor of anything that will protect other families from experiencing what I’ve experienced, that will save somebody’s life, and that will help them to get treatment the next day.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

Eight years ago, if you told me I would be advocating for a place where people could inject heroin, I would have said you’re out of your mind. Now I realize that addiction is a chronic disease. We need to help keep people alive and set aside judgments. We need to look at addiction as a medical problem and look at safe injection sites as a medical solution.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

The number one thing is to keep people alive. Then, to move them into stable treatment. That involves addressing stigma and being open-minded about different interventions — which may seem unconventional, but are actually cutting edge.

I also believe in decriminalizing drug use. It’s not a criminal justice issue. It’s a medical issue, and it needs a medical solution. Eventually, I hope we have fewer people using destructive substances, more medical support and treatment for those who need it, and a much lower death rate.

The stigma of drug use, particularly heroin, is strong. It prevents family members from reaching out for good information that could help themselves and their loved ones make good decisions. The more we’re able to talk openly about it, the more we’re able to break down the stigma.

Mark Squilla poses for a portrait on September 25, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Mark Squilla
Residence: Whitman (South Philadelphia)
Title: 1st District Councilman
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

My wife’s godson overdosed and died from heroin. He went into rehab a couple of times, was on Vivitrol, and tried Suboxone. Unfortunately, fentanyl has really changed the whole makeup of this epidemic. With fentanyl, if you’re clean for a month or two, and then go back to using drugs again, the chances of you dying are a lot greater. Growing up in South Philadelphia, I also knew friends who were into drugs, people who got clean, and people who died. I always thought the city needed a way to address the issue of helping people access treatment. 

I believe this epidemic is still growing. It’s scary. When you talk to people, they are smart people. None of these people said, “I want to be a drug addict,” or, “I want to grow up to be a hooker,” or, “I want to steal so I can buy drugs.” From talking to the folks on the streets, I see how smart they are. Some of these people could be chemists, the way they combine narcotics to get the feeling they want. They’re very smart people, and they got caught in a disease that we need to try to help them resolve.

On the other side, we also have to protect the community where this is happening. The frustration from some of the community is, “Why do we allow drug dealers to stay in there, and constantly feed this epidemic?” Some people have said, “You can only help one or the other,” and I’m saying, “No, that’s not a choice.” We have to help that community get better, and we have to help the people that are addicted and on the streets to get better. We’ve got to do both.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

Initially, I was supportive of the idea of having a safe injection site because I heard that nobody had died in that type of setting. Then I took a trip to Toronto to visit their safe injection sites and came back with the total opposite opinion. It was very disheartening. 

First of all, we were not allowed in the sites when people were using drugs. I don’t know why we couldn’t go in there at that time. It’s not like we’ve never seen it before because we can see it right on the streets. Their hours of operation were from nine to five, and that bothered me. They also didn’t keep track of how many people came in or how many people used the site and overdosed and died after they left. Did they come in one day and use, and then the next day didn’t go in and died somewhere else? They didn’t have those statistics. 

The councilperson from Toronto was a big advocate for this, and we spoke with him in his chambers. When I asked him about the guy who started the site, who was advocating for it, he said, “Well, he overdosed and died. He passed away.” 

What we also saw was Mexican Oxy in the pressed pill forms of the heroin and fentanyl mix. People are now taking these pills. You don’t need a safe injection site to take pills. More people are more apt to take a pill [by mouth] than to inject it. You’re not going to get the same quick high that you get through your vein, so we know that the people selling this stuff were finding other ways to market their product.

The other concern I have is that I was told only 4% of the people who visited these places ever sought out treatment. That was concerning to me because my goal — and maybe it’s old-fashioned — is to help the people. It was very disheartening. We also talked to some of the businesses and neighborhood folks who said that there were a lot more needles around the site. 

Also, one person we talked to on the street said, “I will never go shoot in a Safehouse because of the stigma associated with it. I don’t want people to know I’m going to go in there and shoot up. I’m going to go hide in my own house and do it.” 

The other aspect is that 75% of the people who overdosed, overdosed in their homes, and usually with others. So my mind sort of went to the question of, “Are we really helping people? Either we need one in every neighborhood in the city of Philadelphia, or we shouldn’t do this at all.”

A lady came to me and said, “Well, I live in Society Hill, and I think we should have a safe injection site.” I said, “Where at?” She said, “Kensington.” I said, “Well, where in Society Hill would you put it?” They said, “Oh, no, we don’t need one.” Well, if you support one there, why wouldn’t you support one in Society Hill?

So I’m not there yet. I’m still open to conversations, even with Safehouse with Ronda. I love Ronda and Jose, great people who really care, and want to help folks. We want to help folks, but we also want to help the neighborhood. Go around Prevention Point, and see what’s happening in and around that area. If that was next door to your house, and you had that there where your kid is going to school, that’s not good. We need to do a better job.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

The ideal outcome for me is to actually have a citywide policy that we could deal with people as far as living on the streets. We need to decide if people are allowed to tent and live on a sidewalk or in front of somebody’s house. I don’t think you should. 

A plan has to start with transitional housing and then move into more semi-structured housing options, then more permanent housing. Now, we have people who live in shelters and stay in shelters for 10 years. That’s not a plan. We need to address that issue in a way that we can have a continuum of care and follow these people through that process. 

We need to do a better job partnering with halfway houses, or halfway houses are privately run. Halfway houses should be spread out everywhere, and they should be monitored.

There’s a lot of people who were addicted that are in recovery now that care so much about this, and they want to help everybody. So we have those folks, and we could partner with them to help them, and that’s how our continuum of care will progress. You can’t send someone into rehab for 30 days, and all of a sudden they’re healed. It doesn’t work. It’s proven that it doesn’t work.

Evidence-based medicine tells you [the majority of people] should be on medication-assisted treatment. Well, maybe everybody shouldn’t be on MAT. Maybe you should wean people off MAT over time. The same people who tell us evidence-based medicine is that are the same people who said opioids were the way to deal with pain. So you kept people with pain you kept on opioids for five years, and now look at us. 

If we don’t have a continuum of care before this is done, we’ll fail. We need to work as a city to follow through this continuum of care, to get people through temporary housing and into more permanent housing, then follow them along to job creation. If we grow this, we could get people to start feeling good because they want to feel good about themselves. That’s not to say something can’t trigger them and, boom, they go back to where they were, but we could get a lot more people to be productive citizens in society.

Brad Tabaac poses for a portrait on October 4, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Brad Tabaac
Residence: Langhorne, PA
Title: Merchant
Interviewed: In person by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

A relative who I’m very close with is in recovery. He probably goes to four to five meetings a week, which he organizes and speaks at. He’s been clean for nearly five years. I’ve met his sponsor together with him, and I’ve learned that you have to live recovery to recover. It has to be the primary focus every day of your life.

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I don’t really know enough about it, to know all the upsides. If people in our community who are addicted to heroin are overdosing on the streets, and are going to take the same heroin into Safehouse, what’s going to stop them from overdosing? Granted, they might get fresh needles, or there might be somebody there to supervise and to revive them with Narcan. I don’t know much more than that about what the benefits are. 

I don’t think I would appreciate owning a home on a block where dozens of heroin users are coming into my neighborhood. I know people who live in some of these neighborhoods, and they tell me that the homeless, opioid-addicted population sleep on their steps, urinate and defecate on their properties, and vandalize their cars. It’s a problem for homeowners or renters who have to deal with this population.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

The ideal outcome would be to get all people who are abusing opioids into a program where they were getting Suboxone or methadone. There are, as I see it, hundreds of people walking around everyday abusing narcotics — opioids. I hear about several overdoses a week. People tell me they go to one or two funerals a week. 

I don’t know the solution. If I did, I would’ve told somebody, and we’d have it. It’s a big problem, and there’s a lot of smart people looking at it. And it’s just going to run its course. I don’t know where it’s going to end up.

Anthony Williams poses for a portrait on October 8, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Name: Anthony Williams
Residence: Cobbs Creek
Title: Pennsylvania State Senator, 8th District
Interviewed: By phone by Henry Savage

If you’re comfortable talking to us about it, can you share any personal experience with or connections you have to addiction?

I’m connected to addiction on three levels. Level one is within my family. I’ve had family members who were addicted and one family member, in particular, who was addicted for 20 years. Unfortunately, he lost his battle. I’ve had others who had different outcomes; some successful, some not so successful.

The second level is being an employer who intentionally hires people who are either addicted, trying to recover, or who have recovered. Through that, I have experience working with people who are in that space.

Then of course lastly, unfortunately, when I got elected to office, I was part of a group that was pushing drug dealers out of the community because they had overrun it. A young boy by the name of Marcus Yates got murdered by drug dealers in a community that was heavily overrun by people buying drugs like Kensington is now. 

What is your current stance on Safehouse, and how did you arrive at that conclusion? 

I currently oppose the concepts that have been discussed for Philadelphia. I oppose them because I think comparing programs that operate in other countries to programs that should exist in Philadelphia is like comparing apples to vegetables.

In other places where clinical safe houses are operating, they are recognized by national governments. Those national governments also determine what kind of substances people can inject at the site. There is a different level of oversight. In Philadelphia, I think what we are frankly proposing is nothing more than a location that will be localized fentanyl and Narcan distribution.

I see no difference between a health care provider recovering somebody from an overdose on a street corner, in any part of the city, versus a worker recovering someone in one localized location.

There doesn’t seem to be any understanding that the drug being used is still an illegal substance, provided by someone illegally selling it. That is dramatically different from a “Safehouse” in another country.

What is your ideal outcome for not just the Safehouse initiative, but for the overdose crisis in Philadelphia?

Policymakers and politicians need to move past slogans. Nancy Reagan started off with, “Just say no.” Now apparently, we are into the “We’re saving lives.” 

We have to take seriously that all of us in this country are affected in some way — be it tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs — and we have not dealt with it as a cultural, societal issue. It’s not just in Kensington. Some professionals go to work high every day. 

Without question, people should not get fired for having an addiction. Once it’s discovered that you have an addiction, you should receive treatment. If you go into treatment, you should be able to go back to your job with aftercare and supportive services to be wrapped around you. It should be a requirement, just like social security or Medicaid. 

We can’t solve addiction with a Band-Aid. We need to talk honestly about this crisis as a country, locate where addicts are in this country and who they are, and then intervene at on a practical level in workspaces and homes. 

The following individuals declined to comment:

  • Christine Coulter, Philadelphia Police Department
  • Adam Thiel, Philadelphia Fire Department
  • Frank James, Safehouse board member
  • Thomas Farley Safehouse advisory board member

The following individuals could not be reached for comment: 

  • Jose Benitez, Safehouse executive director
  • Chip Mitchell, Safehouse board member
  • Ana Diez Roux, Safehouse advisory board member
  • Sister Mary Scullion, Safehouse advisory board member

What did you think about this story? Send a note to editors@kensingtonvoice.com, and we’ll consider publishing it in our Voices section. You can also tell us what you think in person at our neighborhood events.

Editors: Claire Wolters, Jillian Bauer-Reese, Diana Cristancho / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Diana Cristancho

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