Kenney Was a Coward in Letting Philly’s Safe Injection Site Fail

When push came to shove for his administration's Big Idea in addressing the opioid crisis, the Mayor's failure to use his position of power turned out to be a political and moral disaster.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

When the public rails against a project that would ultimately be in its best interest, you have to consider it a failing of the project’s messenger.

With more than 3,000 people dead from overdoses in Philadelphia in the past three years and an estimated tens of thousands addicted to opioids here, the city has become the deadliest in the nation in the current opioid crisis. And it was Mayor Jim Kenney who officially sounded the battle cry in 2018, declaring a disaster in Kensington, the nation’s deadliest opioid site. As the problem worsened, the idea of a safe injection site — a bleeding-edge proposal to provide a safe environment, services and support to those suffering from addiction, in a city-sanctioned location — was hotly debated among residents.

But when Safehouse, the nonprofit that last week got a judge’s approval to open a safe injection site, chose, quite by surprise, to put the first such facility in South Philadelphia rather than Kensington, all hell broke loose.

The backlash isn’t rooted so much in why Safehouse made its decision South Philly has seen overdoses increase dramatically in recent years — but in how it went about it.

City Council members claim they were informed about the site’s proposed location only days before the public found out, with no community meetings or forums held in South Philly prior to the announcement. How did Safehouse think it could drop a safe injection site in the middle of one of the city’s most densely populated — and densely opinionated — neighborhoods without a whiff of prior notice and not spark an uproar? Although Safehouse doesn’t depend on taxpayer dollars to support its operations, the nonprofit that’s received the Mayor’s blessing deserved more of his actual backing.

That Kenney wasn’t at Safehouse’s ill-fated press conference in South Philly last week was the epitome of cowardice. It’s hard to imagine that he didn’t already know what was going to go down. Angry residents berating recovering opioid addicts, experts and advocates — including former Governor Ed Rendellat a heated press conference made for a disheartening spectacle to watch.

I was torn between feeling compassion for the advocates who are trying to save lives and empathy for the residents who felt betrayed by a last-minute intrusion into their backyard. In the end, the residents “won”; Constitution Health Plaza cancelled plans to host the safe injection site in its facility.

But the public’s anger is misplaced. The person with the influence, resources and power to avert this catastrophe chose to throw the advocates under the bus. Kenney must have know this safe injection site was coming to South Philly long before everyone else found out and failed to rally the same levels of public awareness and political mobilization he has for other causes.

Philadelphia was about to become the first city in the nation to have a supervised injection site of this magnitude — a huge deal and a major feather in his cap. What could have been more important than showing up for this? This isn’t Kenney’s first rodeo, and he knows better. It was only a few years ago that he massaged his political allies, community leaders, and big-lobby dollars to get City Council on board to pass his controversial soda tax. It baffles me that he wouldn’t apply this same level of public advocacy and political pressure to get support for his pet project on this life-and-death issue. Imagine how a week of speeches, glad-handing, public appearances and wheel-greasing from the Mayor could have changed the narrative.

For people like Council President Darrell Clarke, who has wrestled with understanding how safe injection sites are “safe,” or Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who argued that “we didn’t have Safehouse crackhouses growing up in South Philly,” ignorance is bliss. What many either don’t know or won’t tell you is that the opioid epidemic in this city is ending more black lives than gun violence. Yet they continue their “war on drugs” moral shaming as people continue to die around them. What is their alternative — one that, like Safehouse, wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime?

We may never know, because the misinformation and mass hysteria being projected by some Councilmembers right now has fomented a mob mentality around safe injection sites — not just in South Philly, but throughout the city. Councilmember David Oh is already proposing a bill that would essentially ban such locations in Philly, and it seems to have growing bipartisan support. Safe injection sites are Kenney’s Big Idea for the opioid crisis, and the Safehouse debacle has Council this close to shutting it down.

The Kenney administration did little to help Safehouse gain footing in the community. From his absence at the press conference to his passive-aggressive response on Facebook, the Mayor’s leadership on this issue has failed the countless activists and advocates who have been fighting the opioid epidemic in our city.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” The blood of thousands of future overdose victims will be on the hands of a stubborn City Council — and a cowardly mayor who seems to lack the will to confront strong opposition head-on.