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Harm reduction gains attention, controversy in battling overdoses

Harm reduction — providing a safer way to use drugs — has become a topic of passionate debate in this Philadelphia neighborhood.
Harm reduction gains attention, controversy in battling overdoses
Posted at 1:26 PM, Dec 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-08 00:03:16-05

Drug overdoses, particularly from opioids, happen far more today than they did just a few decades back. The epidemic has caused grief and heartache for families and has left communities grappling for solutions.

One solution, harm reduction — which essentially provides a safer way to use drugs — has become a topic of passionate debate in a city and neighborhood with one of the worst rates of overdose deaths in America.

"It sucks," said Mel Beddis about traveling through the Philadelphia neighborhood called Kensington. Every day she drives in and enters the building where she hopes to make a difference.

Beddis works at Savage Sisters. It is a safe space for those who use drugs. Attached to the walls of her building are messages of love and encouragement, but also of support for a contentious way to stop those who use from losing their lives. 

"Even the people who do want help don't have anywhere to go right now," said Beddis. "Although what we're doing might seem like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole right now, it's kind of all that we have."

Drug overdoses today happen five times as often as they did 20 years ago. Opioids remain the main cause but certainly not the only cause, with a non-opioid called xylazine the latest emerging threat. Governments worldwide are weighing whether to address addiction with harm reduction, which is what Savage Sisters does outside its walls three times a week.

SEE MORE: San Francisco expected to have record year for fatal drug overdoses

"We give out clean syringes at our outreaches," said Beddis. "We also give out safe smoking kits, which are clean pipes. We have tinfoil tourniquets, alcohol pads, triple antibiotic. And that's basically how I describe harm reduction to people. People are going to use drugs, so why not make it as safe as possible for them?"

President Biden's National Drug Control Strategy has a whole section on harm reduction, saying, "Research shows harm reduction programs produce results." The government this year greenlit a $5 million grant to evaluate safe injection sites. But in Philadelphia, those sites were rejected.

Council member Quetcy Lozada represents Kensington. She was one of 13 Philadelphia City Council members who voted to ban safe injection sites. For all the speakers who supported the sites, just as many were against, speaking about potential effects and detriment to the neighborhood. 

Beddis believes harm reduction sites work because she once came to Kensington in the throes of addiction.

"I became chemically dependent on substances when I was around 19," she said. "I entered my first treatment facility at the age of 21. I found myself going to 17 different treatment facilities over the course of 10 years. I think harm reduction as a whole is more viewed as enabling, which it's not. I never stayed in Kensington because somebody gave me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a clean syringe. I stayed because the drugs are here."

SEE MORE: Survey shows 1 in 6 Americans had substance use disorder in 2022

That combination — a PB&J and a clean syringe — to some degree sums up Savage Sisters. Their storefront offers showers, a bathroom and wound care. Their outreach involves harm reduction. For proof, they show themselves and recent success stories like Anthony Capriglione.

"I want a normal life," Capriglione said. "Four months ago, I was the one out there that needed help."

He says he was motivated by his two kids to get clean.

"It hurts, honestly," Capriglione said. "Walking here, it just hurts seeing them so broken. And it does. It sucks. But I gotta do what I gotta do, you know?"

Days after the City Council voted for the ban, the city announced a record — more than 1,400 overdose deaths in 2022. Its next mayor, Cherelle Parker, has floated sending the National Guard into Kensington. Few places seem so unsettling.

And that is the backdrop for the work of Mel Beddis. If no one's coming to save Kensington, her team will do what's in their power.

"I feel like, a lot of the time, our job is spent trying to prove to people that our friends are worth saving," said Beddis. "You know, we can't do this alone. We're going to keep trying to, but we're not going to get very far."


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