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Opinion: Most of the people who want Safehouse in Kensington do not live there

October 8, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


This guest column was written by Gilberto Gonzalez, a visual artist and senior designer at Community College of Philadelphia.

[Editor’s note: This is the second opinion piece about Safehouse we have published this week; you can read the first one here. We believe that our readership deserves to consider the ways all of the opinions we will be presenting challenge our definitions of community, and recognize how deeply at variance the perception of “doing good” can be. Since Jose Benitez — who is the executive director of Prevention Point and the president and treasurer of the board of directors of Safehouse — is mentioned specifically in this column, Generocity reached out to him, asking for his response to the concerns expressed. He declined through a spokesperson.]

Here are some headlines from the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Editorial Board the past few months: “Supervised injection site hearing brought clarity. How come our most skeptical politicians didn’t show up?” or “William McSwain, drop the supervised injection site lawsuit and let Philly save lives” or “The court ruled, and Philly is out of excuses. We need a supervised injection site now”.

As Judge Gerald McHugh listened to [Safehouse board members] Jose Benitez and Ms. Ronda Goldfein while hearing United States v. Safehouse, the mantra was the same: it will save lives, it will make the community safe, safehouses work in Canada and it will help people overcome addiction.

Then there was the study done by Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. Its lead author, Alexis Roth — who was a member of a subcommittee of Mayor Jim Kenney’s Opioid Task Force that recommended opening a supervised injection site — stated that 90% of Kensington residents want a safe injection site in their community.

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When she started collecting data I offered to take her to the homes of Kensington residents so that she could better understand the perspective of the residents. The people who do not have substance abuse disorders, the seniors trapped in their homes by crime, the kids walking through needle-filled streets and the families who have lived in Kensington for generations. I am still waiting for her call.

While the Prevention Point staffers stood outside the courthouse during work hours with signs promoting Safehouse, the working people who live in Kensington didn’t have that luxury.

What has been missing in the conversation about Safehouse is the negative impact that well-intentioned efforts have already had on the neighborhoods impacted by the opioid crisis.

I no longer visit family members who live in the most impacted areas. The streets are littered with syringes and the violence that accompanies the drug business makes the areas dangerous.

Each day I took  my son to school the streets around the building were littered with used syringes. What still concerns me is that no one is asking, “why are there so many needles littering the community?” Prevention Point and other needle exchange programs decided that in order to curb the spread of AIDs and hepatitis they would give needles out or exchange one used syringe for 10 or 50 clean ones.

I agree that we have to stop the spread of these life-threatening diseases, but the result of this good-faith effort is that needles can be found in our parks, inside and outside our libraries, outside our homes and outside our schools. How is this fair to the residents of North Philadelphia and Kensington?

Why is no one thinking about the residents?

Narcan, dubbed a miracle tool, is being used by volunteers and first responders on a daily basis. Some first responders have touted a revival record of 150 individuals. I support the use of Narcan because people with substance abuse disorders need every opportunity to get into long-term treatment.

However, the unintended consequence of Narcan use is that drug dealers love it too.

Every time Naloxnone is used on a person it takes away the effects of the opioid, and for many the main goal after revival is to get back the euphoria that Narcan has taken away. Drug dealers’ sales have increased tenfold. The collateral impact in many communities is increased gun battles over the lucrative drug trade.

My child’s school was on lock-down five times in one year because of gun battles going on outside during school hours. The first few times my child and his friends were scared of the shots fired but now he has become  desensitized. The last week of school there was an overdose in front of the school. As we witnessed the person laying on the sidewalk while first responders worked to bring this person back to life, I asked my child, “Are you OK?”

His response was, “It is just another day.”

I got a knot in my throat and hugged my child. I whispered, “This is not normal, this is not what a day for a child should be like.”

When Jose Benitez opened Prevention Point, he promised he would protect the community. He has failed to protect the children, the seniors trapped in their homes, the bodega owners who get robbed.

If Jose did not keep his promise to protect our community why should we trust that he will do a good job administering Safehouse?

If the result of his good-faith efforts have been increased drug trade and  increased violence,  why would the city put faith in the Safehouse organization?

Most of the people who want the Safehouse in Kensington do not live there. These same people have the means to have their voices heard, even by the Inquirer’s Editorial Board.

Who is listening to the people in Kensington? Who is sitting down with the neighbors around Prevention Point?

Who is taking the time to give voice to the voiceless?

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