Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia, seen here on March 21, 2024, is notorious for the open-air use of hard drugs including fentanyl and xylazine, known on the street as tranq. (All photos by Ashley Gilbertson for The Free Press)

Addiction Activists Say They’re ‘Reducing Harm’ in Philly. Locals Say They’re Causing It.

Addicts have turned a minority neighborhood into an open-air drug market. Residents blame the mostly white advocates for ‘destroying’ their community.

For three years, Sonja Bingham, a 55-year-old mother of three, started every day the same way: with a broom. At dawn, she would come out to sweep away the damage from the previous night—the syringes, the fentanyl baggies, the cigarette butts, and the half-eaten sandwiches. And sometimes as she swept, she couldn’t help but think that the city of Philadelphia would’ve never let this fly during the crack epidemic. 

“They threw our black asses in jail,” says Bingham, who’s speaking to me in her living room where there’s a TV streaming the live feed of four security cameras placed throughout her property. 

“Now that the color of the addicts has changed, they’re going to meet them where they are in our community and allow them to destroy it. So, now you have the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, watching how once again, our lives don’t matter.” 

Her problem is not just with the hundreds of drug users camped out in Kensington—her neighborhood in northeast Philly that’s been dubbed ground zero for the city’s opioid crisis. It’s with an ecosystem of activists that call themselves “harm reductionists.” 

Sonja Bingham, a community activist, yells at drug users and dealers with a megaphone from her bedroom window in Kensington.

Those who advocate for harm reduction—a Biden-endorsed policy that prioritizes users’ safety over their sobriety or abstinence—say they’re helping fix the problem. But when I visited Kensington last month, Bingham and almost a dozen other residents told me that the activists are actually the ones causing it.

“You can’t buy, use, and recover in the same neighborhood,” Bingham says, echoing a line she first heard from one of her neighbors. “That’s not a thing.” 

And yet, she says anyone who complains about the nonprofit workers and volunteers who hand out millions of free syringes a year in Kensington using public dollars is “vilified.” 

“We’re being made to look like we don’t care about people or we’re racists,” says Bingham, adding that she’s “been called a lot of names” by local drug users, including “n——er” and “Uncle Tom bitch.” 

Locals noted that many of the activists handing out sandwiches and needles in Kensington, which is a mostly minority neighborhood, are white. A spokesperson for Prevention Point, the largest harm reduction nonprofit in Philadelphia, told The Free Press that that 50 percent of their twelve-person leadership team “are BIPOC” (black, indigenous, or a person of color), and their eight-strong board has “three members identifying as BIPOC.” Sarah Laurel, the founder of Savage Sisters, which also provides harm reduction services in Kensington, describes herself as “white presenting” and says her father is Iranian.

Bingham is tired of being told she “has to care” about the addicts defecating between the cars on her street and breaking into her garage. She said one threatened her with a dirty needle.

A growing chorus of Kensington homeowners, entrepreneurs, and even a city council member—many of them lifelong Democrats—told me that for too long, Philadelphia has offered harm reduction as the single solution to its opioid crisis. On one end of the spectrum, harm reduction can mean doling out free syringes, Narcan, and fentanyl test strips. But it can also mean “safe injection sites” and even supplying addicts with “medical grade heroin,” which Canada has been doing since 2020 as part of its “safer supply” program. There, as in Kensington, overdose rates have continued to reach record highs since instating these protocols. 

But now, all across America, even in the bluest of cities, constituents are pushing back against harm reduction, saying that the very philosophy that purports to help addicts stand on their own two feet actually keeps them down—and ruins entire neighborhoods in the process.

In early March, Oregon became the first state in the nation to both decriminalize and then recriminalize hard drugs after voters realized the level of chaos they’d unleashed by making possession of small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine a civil matter in November 2020.

A woman using drugs amid the garbage and needles in Kensington, Philadelphia.

In San Francisco, which got behind harm reduction in full force, briefly opening a city-run triage center in 2022 that critics called “an unofficial safe injection site,” there has been a major reversal. Democratic mayor London Breed has come out swinging against the philosophy, calling it a key driver of the city’s skyrocketing overdose rate. 

“Harm reduction, from my perspective, is not reducing the harm,” Breed told a crowd before City Hall in February. “It is making things worse.”

Even as Skid Row in L.A. and San Francisco’s Tenderloin steal the headlines, Pat Trainor, a DEA agent who has been witnessing the problem in Philadelphia for the past 26 years, told me, “I know of no other area that has been more adversely impacted by the opioid epidemic than Kensington.” 

Bingham is tired of being told she “has to care” about the addicts defecating between the cars on her street and breaking into her garage. The other day, she said one tried to threaten her with a dirty needle. She can’t help but feel like all the activists who visit her neighborhood, often walking past local kids to tend to the junkies, don’t care about her or anyone else who actually lives there.

“Do you care that I’m struggling to pay my bills?” she wants to ask the never-ending stream of volunteers. “Anybody hear about that?”

She takes a deep, long sigh, then slowly lifts her head. “Nobody wants to actually listen to the people who live here.” 

Husband and wife Angel, 34, and Glenin Coll, 29, on their porch in Kensington. Glenin says, “Even before we had children we always said we never wanted to raise our kids here.” Angel, a barber, says, “This side of the city is just abandoned.”

Sarah Laurel, the head of Savage Sisters, has more than six years of sobriety under her belt, but for years she roamed the streets of Kensington, looking for her next fix. 

The final straw came in 2017, when a couple of drug dealers threw her out of a second-story window after an argument. She fell from the sky, hitting the pavement in a pink dress stamped with bold, metallic letters: “Savage.”

Later, the ICU staff had to cut the garment—her one possession at the time—from her body in order to operate on her mangled frame. When she was discharged a few days later, in a wheelchair, Laurel made a promise to herself.

“I wanted to chase my recovery with the same ferocious energy I chased my drugs,” Laurel, now 38, posted on her Facebook page last October in celebration of her new sober life.

Now, Laurel has become one of the most recognizable fixtures of Kensington’s harm reduction scene.

“I just wanted to go back and help my friends,” she told me over the phone. 

Today, her 11 “trauma-informed houses” throughout the Philadelphia area offer recovering addicts a safe place to stay, plus therapy sessions, yoga, and reiki for $160 a week in rent. 

When I asked Laurel if her goal is to help get addicts “clean,” she bristled.

“First of all, our friends aren’t dirty,” she replied. “If they want to get into recovery, that’s fine. Our goal is to provide safety and resources to people who use drugs across the board.” 

“Progressives have basically turned harm reduction into mass enablement of addiction,” says Michael Shellenberger, a former harm reduction advocate. “And we can see the consequences.”

“Safety” first began to overshadow sobriety in the early 1980s, when droves of intravenous drug users started falling ill with a mysterious illness scientists were calling AIDS. That’s when activists began the first needle exchange programs, in which drug users could return syringes for fresh ones. And when studies began showing that these measures could effectively lower the spread of HIV, the public dollars came rolling in. By 1994, New York City alone had five syringe exchanges, partially funded by a $2 million grant from the State Department of Health.

At that time, Michael Shellenberger, a former harm reduction advocate, was in the streets of San Francisco, demanding free needles for heroin users. He says these programs, which he convinced progressives like Rep. Maxine Waters to support, seemed like “very logical” interventions to stop the spread of HIV. 

But then he watched with horror as what first seemed like a “minor” part of treating addiction suddenly became “the whole thing.”

“Progressives have basically turned harm reduction into mass enablement of addiction,” he tells me. “And we can see the consequences.”

When he left the field in 2000, about 17,000 Americans had died from drug overdoses, which, Shellenberger said, seemed like “a lot.” As the death toll began to double, then triple, then quadruple throughout the decade, he began to wonder if harm reduction was actually the problem. 

He tells me that “harm reduction became a substitute for doing the hard work” of getting addicts clean, since most of them “relapse multiple times” and struggle to stick to a plan. “It became a simplistic, quick, feel-good fix,” he said.

“It’s not just that it doesn’t work,” continued Shellenberger, who went on to write a book about his change of heart, San Fransicko. “It’s making it worse.”

Last year, the U.S. saw more drug overdoses than ever in a 12-month period, with over 112,000 Americans dead from substances. In 2022, the most recent year for which data is available, Philadelphia recorded its highest number of drug-related deaths: 1,413. 

The streets of Kensington are full of addicts who say they’ve come close to joining that number.

“I’d like a life where I don’t live like this, but it’s hard to imagine,” said Eddie. He’s been homeless for the past eight years while injecting cocaine and tranq. “My body is so far gone, and nobody’s helping me at this point.”

On a Wednesday morning last month, Eddie, 29, is shaking, starting to curl inward. “It’s just my body shivering,” he tells me, draped in a Carhartt jacket he found on the floor of a train station. 

Yesterday he was a rich man, carrying bags of heroin that he says a dealer gave him to sell. But he injected them all himself. Then the dealer beat him with a metal pole, focusing on his hands, which were already starting to rot from the xylazine or “tranq,” an animal tranquilizer that’s infiltrated the fentanyl supply in Philadelphia since 2020. Now, he’s in the early stages of withdrawal, without drugs or a way to make the $3 to $7 it takes to secure his next hit. And he doesn’t see how to get out of the cycle.

“I can’t fucking do nothing,” he said, holding his only possessions—a newspaper, a carton of milk, and a sweater. “My body’s just so far gone. And nobody is helping me at this point.”

Everywhere you look along Kensington Avenue, there is chaos. A handful of users are slumped over piles of debris on the sidewalk, rummaging through pennies, a flip-flop shoe, and an empty Altoids container, looking for something to sell. Medical workers are helping addicts into a van, one by one, to bandage their wounds from injecting tranq. 

Crystal, a 43-year-old former prostitute, shows me the scar on her neck from the time when a doctor at Prevention Point had to drain one of her injuries. Although she’s been using drugs most of her life, she says she’s “never seen wounds” like the ones in Kensington. 

Crystal, 43, cried as she recalled her life of panhandling and drug addiction. Of the wounds she sees on her fellow drug users, she said, “It looks like people got bit by sharks, or torn up by a bear or something, like they’re missing limbs.”

“It’s bad out here,” she tells me. “It looks like people got bit by sharks, or torn up by a bear or something, like they’re missing limbs.”

But today is a good day because she and her partner, Pete, are headed to the railroad tracks for “a picnic.” Once or twice a month, they like to take the money Prevention Point gives them in return for obtaining certain vaccines or medications to buy a bunch of snacks, like Pringles and a Gatorade. 

Pete just got $60 from the nonprofit for taking his monthly shot of Sublocade, a extended-release opioid said to “increase the likelihood that a person will continue to not use drugs,” according to the National Harm Reduction Coalition. 

But Sublocade can’t do a thing for his addiction to tranq, a non-opioid. 

And though Prevention Point says it gives users “incentives,” often in the form of Visa gift cards, there’s nothing to stop them from buying products with the cards—and then selling those items for cash to buy drugs. 

“Babe, you wanna go get something?” Crystal asks Pete, passing him a few dollars. 

Right now, a group of users is lining up to pay a man named Bud $3 to $5 to shoot them up, since after years of injecting drugs, many of their veins have collapsed. That’s why they call him “the hitter”—because he and his steady hands can get anyone high. 

In temps just above freezing, a dope-sick Chris (shirtless) hangs with his friend Bud, known as “the hitter,” because he can easily shoot up users and get them high.

Bud is surrounded by free syringes that he says he obtained through Prevention Point, which told The Free Press it distributed 7,905,470 syringes last year—more than five times the city’s population. The nonprofit’s most recent tax filing reveals that it received more than $10 million in government grants in 2022, including from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Those public dollars went toward programs like its syringe exchange and Beacon House—Prevention Point’s housing shelter that “admits people who are actively still using substances.” 

In a statement, Prevention Point told The Free Press that “Harm reduction is meeting people where they are. It is building trust day after day, consistently, to help people move to the next place in their life.” But in a report from 2020, the Philadelphia Department of Health stated that the highest overdose zones also “align with Prevention Point Philadelphia’s needle and syringe exchange sites.”

Meanwhile, Laurel, the founder of Savage Sisters, defends her work, saying that her nonprofit treats addiction with “dignity and safety.” 

“There is this antiquated idea that individuals must be made incredibly uncomfortable and hit ‘rock bottom’ in order to seek out treatment,” she told me. “But that’s not what harm reduction is there to do. We’re not there to coerce people to get into recovery or get sober—we’re there to mitigate harm.”

Bud rips open a syringe packet with his teeth, telling me he does benefit from what Prevention Point gives him.

“But,” he adds, “at the same time they’re just enabling the problem.”

He tells me that if the nonprofit went away, “I would be doing worse, but that’s the point.”

Zay, a drug user, smokes crack in Kensington, Philadelphia, on March 21, 2024.

Earlier last month, Laurel and her Savage Sisters volunteers stormed through City Hall chanting, “What do we want? Harm reduction. When do we want it—now.”

Many wore N95 masks while holding up signs with messages like “Banning harm reduction is genocide” and “Why do you want to kill my family?”

They were there to push back against an effort led by council member Quetcy Lozada, who founded the Kensington Caucus, an initiative to crack down on the area’s open-air drug market. 

When I met Lozada on a Tuesday afternoon, she brushes off all the names harm reduction advocates have flung against her since starting the initiative.

“If you don’t live there, your voice is not a priority to me,” says Lozada, echoing a sentiment many residents told me—that the loudest harm reduction advocates often don’t live in Kensington, which is 19 percent white, 28 percent black, and 55 percent Hispanic, according to Lozada’s office. (Prevention Point’s spokesperson said 38 percent of its employees live in Kensington. Sarah Laurel of Savage Sisters told me she is a resident of the neighborhood.)

While most activists go home at five o’clock, Lozada says residents remain “prisoners in their own homes.” She tells me that kids don’t even play in the street anymore—even McPherson Square, the local playground, is called “Needle Park” now. And families can’t buy groceries on Kensington Avenue because it’s been “occupied” by drug users. 

Council member Quetcy Lozada founded the Kensington Caucus, an initiative to crack down on the area’s open-air drug market. “If you don’t live there, your voice is not a priority to me,” she told The Free Press.

“We are hurting and destroying an entire community, an entire generation of children, who in some way, one day, will be a part of our services,” she tells me, seated at her desk. “They will be a part of our system at some point, because as a government, we have failed them.” 

Lozada is pushing for the city to institute a “triage system,” in which drug users would either be directed toward treatment or jail. She’s already succeeded in getting the city to mandate an 11 p.m. curfew for businesses in Kensington, a first step toward tackling what she’s described as the “total chaos” of the area.

She isn’t the only city leader pushing for a return to order. At the helm is newly instated mayor, Democrat Cherelle Parker, who campaigned on promises to clean up Kensington, even telling The Philadelphia Inquirer at one point that she’d enlist the National Guard to “put an end to the open-air drug market and drug use residents are being forced to live with.”

Sonja Bingham says she is angered by harm reduction advocates in the neighborhood who “walk past a child who probably didn’t have a hot meal,” and “give it to some junkie on the ground.”

On her first day in office, January 2, Parker committed to developing a plan to “permanently shut down” the open-air drug trade in Kensington within her first hundred days in office.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the state House have impeached the city’s district attorney Larry Krasner, a George Soros–backed progressive who’s now awaiting his trial in the Senate. State Republicans blame Krasner’s progressive reforms for the city’s near-constant gun violence

But Sonja Bingham, the Kensington homeowner, isn’t waiting for the new mayor, the National Guard, or anyone else to come save her. 

In 2022, she testified before the state House on her effort to clean up her neighborhood block by block. 

“I am not here to advocate for addicts,” she told the panel. “My purpose today is to advocate for those who are truly unheard, the black and brown residents held captive in their homes because these people are allowed to live in our public spaces.”

Bingham told me she wants the activists to think about the message they’re sending the kids who actually live in Kensington. 

“You’re in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, you’re gonna walk past a child who probably didn’t have a hot meal, right? You’re gonna go right past them, and you’re gonna give it to some junkie on the ground? Like, what do you think your seeds are planting in the minds of our young people of their value and worth?” 

She says after three years of cleaning up her block, picking up needles, and calling in hazmat teams to clean up feces from the street, her little stretch of Kensington is finally turning around. And when addicts wind up on her corner, she picks up a bullhorn she keeps by her window to yell, You can’t be here! 

“I can hear the kids playing again,” she says. She can hear them pedaling their bikes down the street. “And that’s why we do what we do.” 

Olivia Reingold is a writer for The Free Press. Read her piece “They’re Black Democrats. And They’re Suing Chicago Over Migrants,” and follow her on X @Olivia_Reingold.

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