LGBTQ, AIDS organizations join fight to bring safehouse to Philadelphia

LGBTQ, AIDS organizations join fight to bring safehouse to Philadelphia

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To combat the opioid crisis, several Philadelphia LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS organizations are advocating for a medically-supervised consumption site in the city’s Kensington section.

“People are dying at a rate we haven’t seen since 1996 when effective HIV meds were introduced. We’ve reversed overdoses in the waiting room, on the street and a block away,” said Jane Shull, CEO of Philadelphia FIGHT.

The medically-supervised consumption facility proposed by Safehouse, a privately funded Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation, is based on a harm-reduction model and would also distribute naloxone, a medication used to counter the effects of opioid overdose. If the facility opens, it could be the first in the nation.

Philadelphia FIGHT is one of several organizations listed on an amicus brief supporting the proposed facility. The brief was filed pro bono by global law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP on behalf of Action Wellness, ACT UP Philadelphia, LGBT Elder Initiative, Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition, Philadelphia FIGHT, Prevention Point Philadelphia, Sero Project, SOL Collective and the William Way LGBT Community Center.

The brief is a response to a civil lawsuit filed in February 2019 by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania asking a federal court to declare supervised consumption sites illegal. The lawsuit argues that the “Control Substance Act (CSA) provides that it is wholly unlawful to manage or control any place, regardless of compensation, for the purpose of unlawfully using a controlled substance.”

However, according to a survey in the Journal of Urban Health, 90 percent of Kensington residents are in favor of opening the facility proposed by Safehouse and 63 percent of business owners and staff in the area support opening the facility.

Along with medically supervised consumption, Safehouse participants would be offered a physical and behavioral health assessment, wound care, referrals to primary care, social services and housing opportunities.

In 2017, Pennsylvania had the third highest rate of death by overdose in the country. In Philadelphia  “nearly 3 in 10 Philadelphia residents personally knowing someone who has died because of opioid use”, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. The same study indicated that 40 percent of Philadelphians said they know someone who had misused opioids in the previous 12 months.

The LGBTQ community is particularly affected by addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “LGBT persons also have a greater likelihood than non-LGBT persons of experiencing a substance use disorder.”

Director of Programs and Outreach for the LGBT Elder Initiative David Griffith said, “We know that there are many in the LGBTQ community who are experiencing addiction and that our communities have been impacted by the opioid crisis.

“We also know that older adults have been deeply affected by the opioid crisis due largely to the frequency that seniors have been prescribed opioids.”

Additionally, high rates of HIV have been observed in urban areas as a result of illicit injection drug use according to the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Shull said Philadelphia FIGHT has seen a jump in HIV cases combined with hepatitis C. Typically when a patient has both HIV and hepatitis C, it’s an indication they may have contracted the viruses from intravenous drug use.

“There is an epidemic about to break out,” emphasized Shull.

One study found a 30 percent reduction in the rate of deaths by drug overdose in the neighborhood immediately around a consumption facility in another country. Of 1,116 deaths by overdose reported in Philadelphia in 2018, 334 of those potentially could have been prevented if opioid users had access to medically-supervised consumption sites.

An evidentiary hearing is scheduled for August 19 and 20. Safehouse will detail how it plans to operate the facility. The oral argument is scheduled for September 5. The hearing and the argument will be in a federal court in Philadelphia.

Shull said that Philadelphia FIGHT will be outside the courthouse on August 19 reading the names of those who have died from opioid overdose. 

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