Philadelphia may become the very first city in the country with a safe injection site. 

woman listens as man with microphone speaks

A local nonprofit known as Safehouse is now working to open a facility where residents will be able to use illicit drugs under medical supervision. While no such facility exists in the U.S., it’s not a new concept. Switzerland opened the first such facility 30 years ago, according to Safehouse. Now, more than 120 such sites are open in Europe, Australia and Canada.

The innovative strategy was just one example of Philadelphia public health efforts discussed at the APHA Student Assembly’s National Student Meeting on Saturday during a panel session on “Addressing Community Health in the City of Brotherly Love.”

“We are one of the cities that is hit the hardest in the country [from drugs],” said Jose Benitez, president of Safehouse and executive director of Prevention Point Philadelphia, which started as a needle exchange program. “We lost 1,100 people last year from overdose deaths that were related to fentanyl — 1,200 a year before that, 900 a year before that.”

The U.S. Department of Justice had sued Safehouse to stop the planned injection site, but a judge ruled in the nonprofit’s favor in October. However, federal officials said they would appeal, which could continue to delay Safehouse’s plans.

Benitez said the U.S. is in the “dark ages” when it comes to drug policy, which hasn’t changed much since the days of “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s.

“If you look at our current drug policies in the country — 72,000 people died (in 2017 from overdoses) — something is wrong,” he told attendees. “We should admit that and have an honest discussion about where we are. And sometimes that honest discussion is going to be us saying, in the field, ‘we don’t understand it all, but we have to do something different than what we’re doing now.’” 

In addition to local safe injection efforts, meeting attendees heard from representatives from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, the Black Women’s Health Alliance and the local Public Health Management Corporation.

The panelists encouraged students to get involved in local community efforts by volunteering with an organization focused on an area they’re passionate about. Katie Milholin, community educator at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, pointed to her own experience volunteering for two years with the coalition before she was hired full time.

“No matter what cause is close to your heart, no matter what public health issue you feel personally connected to, there is a community-based organization out there who is doing that work, and I guarantee they need good volunteers,” Milholin said.

She pointed out that while many people try to volunteer during Thanksgiving and the December holidays, volunteers are needed during the summer months, too. In fact, she said that’s when organizations desperately need help.

“The volunteer that’s going to come to you in the summer and say, ‘I really care about the work that you’re doing and I want to help out,’ — that is such a blessing for a community-based organization,” Milholin said

Above: Jose Benitez, president of Safehouse, and Katie Milholin, community educator at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, talk to attendees at the National Student Meeting. (Photo by Jim Ezell, courtesy EZ Event Photography)