Who’s watching the push for Safehouse?

Individuals from Philadelphia and surrounding cities rally in support of Safehouse outside of the federal courthouse on September 5, 2019. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Last Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that Safehouse does not violate the federal “crack house” statute, setting a new legal precedent for future overdose prevention sites to operate under federal law. 

Since this decision impacts more than just Philadelphia, we reached out to harm reduction advocates in neighboring states to see how the ruling affects them.

Below is everyone we’ve talked to so far — from harm reduction activists in New Jersey, a community leader in New York, a community organizer in Connecticut, and families in Massachusetts. Here’s what they said.

Editor’s Note: Some interviews were edited for brevity and clarity.

Full Name: Jennie Chenkin
Location: New Jersey (on behalf of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition)
Title: Co-founder of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition
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?

Several of our members, including myself, are in long-term recovery. Most, if not all, have seen loved ones struggle with substance use or lost loved ones to overdoses.

Can you briefly explain the nature of the addiction crisis in your city and how it affects you?

New Jersey’s crisis is exacerbated by a widespread lack of access — both to harm reduction resources and syringe service programs. Seven syringe service programs exist for the entire state of New Jersey, which is home to about nine million people. Despite obstacles, the existing programs do excellent work. However, there simply aren’t enough and our communities are shouldering the burden. 

While overdose deaths nationwide dropped for the first time since 1990 in 2019, they continue to rise in New Jersey. There are HIV and Hepatitis outbreaks in South Jersey related to reusing and sharing needles, among other things. There is state and federal funding for seven syringe services programs. Still, municipalities need to issue an ordinance to sanction the sites, and none want to do so. This puts the onus on laypeople and grassroots groups like mine to pressure government officials to act in the interest of community safety.

How does Philadelphia’s fight for an overdose prevention site affect your city? 

Philadelphia’s fight for an overdose prevention site affects every city. The sanctioning of Safehouse is groundbreaking. It sets a legal precedent that could allow multiple United States cities to open similar sites. These sites can reduce deaths from overdoses and improve public health. This kind of initiative is desperately needed across our state.

What is your ideal outcome for the overdose crisis in your city?

An ideal outcome includes at least one syringe service program in each county, at least one overdose prevention site in each county, peer-based naloxone distribution and syringe exchange programs, and a seat for people who use drugs at every decision-making table.

Full Name: Cheryl Juaire
Location: Marlborough, Massachusetts 
Title: Founder of Team Sharing
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?

My son, Corey Merrill, died of an overdose on February 24, 2011. He was alone in his bedroom inside a halfway house. I am also the founder of Team Sharing, an organization of parents who have lost a child or children to this epidemic. We are a nonprofit organization that includes one national group and 13 state chapters. 

Can you briefly explain the nature of the addiction crisis in your city and how it affects you?

This isn’t a crisis in my city. This is a crisis in the whole United States.

How does Philadelphia’s fight for an overdose prevention site affect your city? 

I sat through the entire Safehouse trial on August 19 and left feeling more empowered than ever. As the founder of an organization of parents who have lost a child in this epidemic, it was surprising to me that anyone would ask me if I was in favor of a safe consumption facility. I had guessed that 95% of people who took the survey were in favor, 4% were uneducated, and 1% was a definite “No.” It was only when we became educated and really studied the facts that we did change our own minds.

What is your ideal outcome for the overdose crisis in your city?

I believe in this now with everything I have. But as a parent of a child who died from an overdose, I will never know whether a place like Safehouse would have kept my child alive. My guess is yes. If one had existed, I would have driven my son there myself in hopes of keeping him for one more day. Now, I can no longer fight for my child, but I can fight for yours — the children of the future — and I will.

Full Name: John Lally
Location: Ellington, Connecticut
Title: Founder of Today I Matter
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 have both personal and professional connections to addiction. I am a psychiatric nurse practitioner who has been working in addiction and mental health for 35 years. Personally, I lost my son, Timothy, to a heroin overdose three and a half years ago. 

My son struggled with depression and anxiety and medicated himself in attempts to feel better. He started with pills, like OxyContin, and then switched to heroin. He tried treatment a few different times, but addiction kept coming back and grabbing him. Finally, it took him away from us. He overdosed.

Can you briefly explain the nature of the addiction crisis in your city and how it affects you?

Our small town has a population of around 16,000 people. But within our small town, we struggle. Over the last five years, we’ve lost several people each year to overdose deaths. 

Our town is the kind of place that wants to look the other way. It doesn’t want to admit to the problem. We have an uphill battle, while we’re losing people. For every person we lose, there are a lot more struggling. 

Part of my frustration comes from trying to convince other residents to open their eyes. It’s too late to think addiction is not coming to Ellington — it’s here. It’s been here. Our people are dying — not at the same rate as a city or inner city, but they are still dying. In a small suburban town, addiction is killing our population as well. 

How does Philadelphia’s fight for an overdose prevention site affect your city? 

Safehouse’s approval in Philadelphia can potentially make it easier to open safe injection sites in other places. 

What is your ideal outcome for the overdose crisis in your city?

No one should die again from an overdose. Although we can’t stop drug use completely, we can reduce drug use and help people use drugs in safer ways. If we more people have the mindset that others’ lives deserve changing, and saving, and that people deserve treatment, then we might come up with better treatment options in this area. 

Once people see that others deserve treatment, and life, that can shift our emphasis and maybe even increase treatment availability. We can get people to discuss addiction without attaching shame and stigma. If people talk about it, then we can also start working with kids from a younger age to reduce the chances they will have these kinds of problems as they grow older. 

Full Name: Cara Moser and Izzy Harper
Location: Rockhampton, Massachusetts
Title: Mother and daughter community activists
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?

Cara: My daughter Eliza died about 10 months ago from an accidental overdose, after battling an addiction to heroin for about five years. After 10 months of being clean of opioids, she relapsed and overdosed on her 26th birthday.

Her death, and how she was found, draw me to Safehouse. Eliza was my second of five children. Her youngest brother found her. He was 14 when he saw her in our living room. He rolled her off the couch and started to give her CPR, breathing into her and trying to revive her while, at the same time, trying to call 911. 

When I found out what happened that day, I couldn’t believe it. I lost one daughter, and now her youngest brother has this hanging over his life. 

We had Narcan in the kitchen. We were open about it and talked about addiction. We weren’t a family hiding anything, so when my son told me about his last moments with her, I knew there should be a place where people can use safely. 

Can you briefly explain the nature of the addiction crisis in your city and how it affects you?

Cara: I think we all have this crisis. Nationally, it’s across the board. Here in Massachusetts, I don’t think it’s getting any better. But I think we have several cities and towns that will start their own safe consumption sites with or without government permission. I’m hoping that Rockhampton, Massachusetts will become one of those towns. The week Eliza died, about three other people also died in our small town.

How does Philadelphia’s fight for an overdose prevention site affect your city? 

Cara: I hope that Safehouse will be the first model in this country. They’re paving the way.

Izzy: The opioid epidemic is starting to be talked about in a new way. It’s being approached by the public with more understanding and openness than ever before. I think that safe consumption sites within that conversation are still very new. Harm reduction is not a new concept, but it is still relatively new to the public conversation. Only through the collective consciousness has it become something people are more aware of. 

Right now, safer consumption in our nation is theoretical. We can point to studies from Canada and other places around the world, which I see validity in. But if Safehouse can open and we can demystify what safe consumption is, it would be a huge help. The more it can get broken down into digestible pieces of information, the more hope we have to have it grow throughout the nation.

What is your ideal outcome for the overdose crisis in your city?

Cara: We have a breakdown in our health system. We have a failure in the way we medically treat people with substance use disorder. We need facilities like Safehouse as places where people who are either in recovery or relapsing can rely on for the care they need, like medical treatment for infections and wounds, social services for treatment and rehab, and other things that we’re lacking.

Izzy: My hope would be one day — with Safehouse as one small step in the right direction — our health system will give anyone with substance use disorder the best chance to stay alive and recover.

Full Name: Shantae Owens
Location: New York City, New York
Title: Leader with Vocal-NY and the Users’ Union
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?

When I was actively using, there was no such thing as harm reduction. All of the programs were abstinence-based. And for the record, addiction has always been an epidemic. The epidemic has just been contained in poor neighborhoods. It wasn’t considered an epidemic because Blacks and Latinos were dying from opioid usage.

I survived addiction and currently work as a community leader with Vocal New York. I’m also part of a large group called the Users’ Union, which is made up of former and active drug users who conduct street-based outreach in the Bronx and in Manhattan.

Can you briefly explain the nature of the addiction crisis in your city and how it affects you?

I’ve been telling people for years, look at your own communities. The Kensington area of Philadelphia has the highest rate of overdoses, where people are dying, and family members are lost on a daily basis. The same thing is happening in New York. 

Almost everyone I know carries naloxone — an overdose reversal medication — because overdose numbers have reached dangerously high numbers. Folks are using drugs in public spaces like McDonald’s, Burger King, and public bathrooms, and most are dying alone. Others use in alleyways and underneath bridges, where they’re also dying alone.

There are harm reduction centers in New York, but a harm reduction center can only do but so much. We have a syringe exchange program and offer Suboxone treatment to those who want it, along with naloxone distribution and trainings. We have case management and social workers, meditations, and all that.

But if you really think about it, these forms of harm reduction date back to the ’90s. Even in abstinence-based programs, people were still actively using drugs. All we have done is evolved. Overdose prevention sites and safe consumption sites — various states have called it different names — that’s something new. We’ve tried everything else. Jail has not worked. Forcing people off Suboxone and methadone has not worked. 

How does Philadelphia’s fight for an overdose prevention site affect your city? 

Safehouse can allow Philadelphia to save lives and open up the door for other places like New York to save lives.

What is your ideal outcome for the overdose crisis in your city?

Safe injection sites worked in Australia. On paper, there has not been one fatal overdose. So let’s try it. We wasted many millions of taxpayers’ money on building new jails and forcing people into treatment and on Suboxone and methadone, and none of that worked. Let’s try this approach. 


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.

Editor: Claire Wolters / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte

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