Former Prevention Level staff say they confronted harmful circumstances whereas treating individuals in dependancy

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Uncooked sewage flooded the rooms used as well being clinics inside a former church on Kensington Avenue that promised a secure haven in Philadelphia’s opioid dependancy disaster.

Some staff nervous about security for themselves and their shoppers at a shelter with no locks on the entrance door. Others handled rodents in meals prep areas.

And a few say they confronted sexual harassment that lengthy went unpunished.

The Inquirer has discovered that Prevention Level Philadelphia, a distinguished nonprofit serving individuals in dependancy, has allowed these sorts of inner issues to jeopardize shoppers, staff, and the lifesaving mission that made it a frontrunner in dependancy therapy.

Prevention Level runs the oldest needle trade program within the metropolis and the one everlasting website the place drug customers can commerce in contaminated needles for clear ones. Offering this service means the nonprofit group technically operates exterior of state legislation, which bans such needle exchanges.

This has left Prevention Level dealing with little accountability because it pioneered in Philadelphia an method to dependancy referred to as hurt discount, which seeks to maintain drug customers alive whether or not or not they’re able to give up.

Its mission is combating an epidemic of dependancy in a metropolis that recorded 1,214 deaths in 2020 from drug overdoses. Prevention Level attracts 24,000 individuals by its doorways every year — from adjoining streets to the suburbs and past — as it really works to fill a regional void in dependancy well being care by providing companies that vary from needle drops to HIV testing to housing help.

Eight former Prevention Level staffers have approached The Inquirer since final fall to speak concerning the surroundings at Prevention Level. Reporters corroborated their accounts in hours of interviews, spoke with the group’s leaders, and reviewed the few public information obtainable on its operations from the town and state well being departments.

The investigation has discovered years of compounding issues on the well being group supported by $9.6 million a 12 months in metropolis funding, an funding that falls in need of what many Kensington group members really feel is required to deal with the complete scope of addiction-related social points difficult the neighborhood.

» READ MORE: For years, Kensington residents have pleaded with Philadelphia officers for complete options to a citywide dependancy disaster that is most seen of their neighborhood.

Staff as soon as had to make use of their espresso mugs to bail out a sewage spill in the primary constructing. In the meantime, the group’s homeless shelters, on the time situated in two former storefronts farther up the avenue, have been infested with bedbugs and rats, and at one level had no locks on the doorways.

There have been shootings and stabbings exterior the buildings, and staff stated they felt unsupported by administration after they raised issues concerning the group’s consideration to safety.

A tradition of open sexual harassment of staff was detailed by 5 former staffers. A number of say they and different coworkers felt ignored or dismissed by administration after they tried to carry up issues.

In an interview, Prevention Level officers acknowledged lots of the issues, however stated they wanted time to deal with them.

Almost two years after the sewage backup, the group relocated its homeless shelter to a newly renovated constructing at close by Episcopal Hospital’s campus, however nonetheless runs well being clinics on the previous website. Officers stated it has not flooded with uncooked sewage since 2021.

Just lately, the group additionally has investigated sexual harassment internally, overhauled its reporting system for complaints, and fired an worker discovered to have sexually harassed coworkers, officers stated. The allegations of sexual harassment have been first reported by Billy Penn.

Govt director Jose Benitez blamed among the issues on Prevention Level’s speedy progress, however stated shoppers have been by no means uncovered to severe well being dangers.

“We grew exponentially within the final 4 years and wanted to construct infrastructure. Being financially accountable, we found out how one can construct infrastructure slowly in order that we might streamline what we’re doing,” he stated. He added: “To listen to among the allegations — it’s sort of like, they’ve kernels of fact, and in some instances, they’re being exaggerated, and in different instances, it’s simply flat-out not true.”

Oversight is minimal. The state has no function in licensing or regulating the nonprofit. Prevention Level officers say they work intently with metropolis companies that deal with dependancy programming, and metropolis officers say they usually go to and monitor the group.

Nonetheless, metropolis officers couldn’t present documentation of that oversight. Town seems to have taken few actions to deal with issues regardless of being conscious of worker complaints. Metropolis constructing inspectors additionally repeatedly flagged deteriorating circumstances at its buildings, and impartial monetary audits have raised purple flags over poor monetary controls.

Whereas acknowledging issues on the group, the town’s Deputy Managing Director Eva Gladstein stated in an announcement that Prevention Level offers “extremely efficient, typically lifesaving care.”

Former staff say that advanced and compounding issues enabled unsafe circumstances to fester: Prevention Level was a first-of-its-kind nonprofit that grew with out guardrails, enough funding, or oversight. Administration was unresponsive to worker complaints in a demanding office tradition the place harassment ran rampant. There additionally was the stigma of addressing drug use by hurt discount — and the stress to succeed as one of many solely teams doing so.

“Very similar to the pandemic is highlighting plenty of points which have existed, Prevention Level’s speedy progress has been gas to the hearth — and so they’ve by no means constructed a stable basis for themselves,” stated Tiff Rodriguez, a former case supervisor on the group and Kensington resident who’s been vocal about points she encountered there.

Regardless of the current modifications, those that have labored at Prevention Level stay alarmed. Many don’t know what worries them extra — the damaging circumstances they are saying they labored by, or that discussing them publicly might undermine the town’s important supply of assist for individuals with nowhere else to show.

“I don’t hate Prevention Level,” stated Eva Fitch, a former worker who left the group in September 2021. “I imagine in its mission greater than the rest. However it doesn’t really feel like you possibly can deal with individuals this manner and uphold that mission.”

Since its inception on the peak of the AIDS epidemic, Prevention Level has occupied a novel place in Philadelphia’s health-care infrastructure.

Within the Nineteen Eighties, drug customers got here to Philadelphia for its low-cost, pure heroin offering a excessive that will final for hours. Kensington quickly turned the epicenter of the commerce, at one level incomes a popularity as one of many East Coast’s largest open-air drug markets. However every injection additionally put drug customers vulnerable to illnesses reminiscent of HIV and hepatitis, particularly after they shared needles.

More and more involved AIDS activists launched what would change into Prevention Level by handing out clear syringes in Kensington.

State officers threatened to arrest them, however in 1992, then-Mayor Ed Rendell advised state authorities to arrest him first. He used an government order to permit Prevention Level to function in defiance of the state’s syringe trade ban.

By the mid-2010s, Prevention Level could be credited with stopping greater than 10,000 HIV infections from injection drug use. It additionally courted controversy locally — the place many residents really feel that the town has not completed sufficient to curb drug use and gross sales, burdening Kensington with social issues that wouldn’t be accepted in different neighborhoods.

At present, dozens of states have handed legal guidelines legalizing such exchanges — however not Pennsylvania.

In most states the place syringe exchanges are authorized, they’re overseen by state well being departments. However Pennsylvania’s ban leaves syringe exchanges throughout the state working largely with the blessing of native municipalities. The state’s Division of Well being doesn’t license or oversee the operation, nor does its Division of Drug and Alcohol Applications.

And when a pandemic arrived, making delivering well being care safely much more difficult, present points at Prevention Level reached a disaster level.

Contained in the church constructing and two transformed storefronts that housed Prevention Level’s packages, circumstances have been deteriorating whereas the wants of individuals in dependancy surged in the course of the pandemic. Shelter areas that have been by no means particularly clear turned downright unsanitary, staff say.

Chyna Parker, a former staffer at one of many respite facilities who left in January 2020, remembers rats and mice scurrying out of the fridge the place friends’ meals was ready, or operating throughout her toes within the kitchen.

One time, a visitor referred to as her over to their cot, screaming, when a mouse was swimming on the backside of their espresso cup.

Ultimately, a workers member introduced in a stray cat off the road to assist hunt the rodents within the constructing. “It was utterly disgusting,” Parker recalled.

When bedbugs swarmed cots and furnishings, administration gave staffers bottles of rubbing alcohol to spray on themselves earlier than and after shifts, Parker stated.

And there was the sewage.

Parker recalled a handful of cases the place she turned on the kitchen sink to scrub a dish, and the faucet water was brown and smelly. The identical occurred within the toilet, the place stable items of sewage ran from the brown sink water when she tried to scrub her palms.

The response when she raised issues to administration: silence.

On the shelters, a lot of the residents have been nonetheless in lively dependancy — and afraid of being caught utilizing medication. So that they shoved needles down sinks and in bogs, clogging the plumbing and inflicting backups.

Courtney Lane, a former housing case supervisor at Prevention Level, stated that for almost all of her three and a half years there — ending in August 2021 — the shelters didn’t persistently have containers to eliminate used needles, as a result of Prevention Level thought it will encourage drug use. She watched sewage overflowing into shelter bogs.

“I bear in mind one time getting like a Roto-Rooter, like an industrial-sized one, and there simply being a whole bunch and a whole bunch of syringes developing. It was similar to the craziest factor I’ve ever seen,” Lane stated.

Used needles discarded in plastic trash luggage poked staff — who weren’t educated to deal with needles — emptying the rubbish, she stated. Fitch stated staff weren’t given protecting gloves to stop needle sticks.

Prevention Level officers stated all buildings have been outfitted with syringe disposal containers, and the staff who advised The Inquirer in any other case have been incorrect.

Data from the town’s Division of Licenses and Inspections present that since 2019, officers performed 11 investigations into circumstances on the important church constructing, 9 at its shelter throughout the road, and two at one other shelter farther up Kensington Avenue.

Collectively, L&I cited Prevention Level for 64 code violations throughout these three properties over the identical time interval, for all the things from trash to severe fireplace code violations. In its most up-to-date visits to the church constructing this 12 months, inspectors repeatedly flagged a number of fireplace hazards which have endured for months, together with an absence of extinguishers, obstructed exits, and gas canisters being saved indoors. Prevention Level spokesperson Cari Feiler Bender stated points with L&I’ve been addressed.

In the summertime of 2021, the primary church constructing skilled an enormous sewage backup whereas administration was out on a workers retreat.

Former staffer Corey Nedev instantly nervous concerning the sewage inflicting infections in his immunocompromised sufferers within the HIV therapy division, and different sufferers within the clinic with open wounds — a standard facet impact of injection drug use.

“In our HIV clinic, we are able to’t sit there drawing your blood in a room that may put you into sepsis,” Nedev stated.

A upkeep supervisor advised Nedev to scoop uncooked sewage out of his clinic room with a espresso mug. In the meantime, others tried to contact management. Weak and weak sufferers have been directed upstairs right into a former sanctuary with out electrical energy. It was nearly unbearably scorching, however there was no sewage.

Ultimately, Nedev stated, a cleansing crew got here in to scrub up the sewage. But staffers seen feces on chairs and in sinks after they returned to the constructing. Rodriguez stated she referred to as the federal Occupational Security and Well being Administration. Nedev stated a upkeep supervisor slammed a door on him when he raised issues concerning the feces in his clinic places of work. Pissed off and feeling unheard by administration, Nedev resigned shortly after the incident.

Benitez, the group’s government director, blamed the sewage spillover on building on one other lot, and famous that the constructing was cleaned inside two days.

Late final 12 months, the group closed its Kensington Avenue shelters and moved them each to a constructing on Episcopal Hospital’s campus. Present staff, who spoke with The Inquirer at their employers’ course, stated the enhancements embody extra space for shoppers and workers and a constructing renovated round Prevention Level’s wants.

Metropolis officers stated they’d realized of the sewage incident in the primary constructing after the OSHA grievance was filed. They inspected the power and decided that Prevention Level “had appropriately addressed the problem.”

Prevention Level staffers stated management brushed apart their issues about routine publicity to violence and trauma in a neighborhood the place shootings and violence associated to the drug commerce are frequent. The police unit that patrols the encircling neighborhood has recorded 273 capturing victims over the previous 12 months — or about 10% of all these shot citywide.

Two of the previous staffers who detailed issues about security inside additionally lived locally, a former industrial hub that’s lengthy been residence to working-class households with a fierce devotion to the neighborhood, which they’ve felt is uncared for, underserved and underfunded by the town.

» READ MORE: This Kensington outreach employee saved dozens from overdose. Then the trauma turned an excessive amount of.

At one of many previous shelters on Kensington Avenue, the locks on the constructing didn’t work, an issue significantly throughout understaffed night hours. It wasn’t uncommon for friends to usher in mates from exterior, sneaking them by the night staff, Parker stated.

One evening in 2019, a drug vendor burst by the unlocked door of the shelter, with a gun drawn, pointing in staffers’ faces and shifting towards friends, searching for somebody who owed them cash, in keeping with Parker, the previous homeless shelter staffer.

Prevention Level officers deny this incident occurred. “There was hassle with a lock. We tried to get the owner to repair it. And ultimately it obtained mounted. That did take a tiny little bit of time,” stated Bender.

In February 2020, certainly one of Prevention Level’s shoppers fatally stabbed a person exterior one of many group’s shelters. Lane, the previous housing case supervisor, stated she had spoken to her supervisor for weeks concerning the consumer’s psychological well being.

Deeply distressed by the stabbing, Lane stated she requested her supervisor for day without work, which was refused.

“They stored being like, ‘Individuals die, it’s simply the way it’s gonna be.’”

“They stored being like, ‘Individuals die, it’s simply the way it’s gonna be.’”

Courtney Lane, a former housing case supervisor at Prevention Level

Benitez stated the group was within the strategy of getting the person a psychological well being analysis — though not as a result of his conduct struck anybody else on the group as uncommon. “The explanation the individual was being evaluated was as a result of we wanted it for the subsequent step in his housing placement,” he stated.

This February, a consumer was shot exterior the primary constructing. Krystal Perea, who labored as a case supervisor, occurred to be exterior on the time, and helped the injured man on the sidewalk, providing emergency first help.

Two days later, a panicked coworker ran as much as Perea’s desk in the primary constructing, saying the shooter was inside and searching for her, Perea stated. The alleged shooter believed, falsely, that Perea had referred to as the police.

Safety workers, she stated, laughed at her terror. “The pinnacle of safety was saying he is aware of the shooter, and he’s not going to do something, he simply desires to have a dialog,” she stated. “They have been joking about my scenario.”

Perea managed to slide out a again exit. She had deliberate to give up the job anyway, and spent her previous few days at Prevention Level working from residence.

After the capturing, she was advised to not come again even on a part-time foundation. “An in depth good friend of mine who’s in management broke it down and stated, ‘It’s since you’re a legal responsibility,” she stated.

Benitez stated the alleged shooter by no means got here into the constructing. Perea additionally disobeyed a lockdown order to assist the person wounded within the capturing, he stated.

“We took acceptable measures,” he stated. Staffers additionally unfold phrase to the safety staff to maintain a watch out for the suspected shooter.

Prevention Level spokesperson Bender stated that Perea was not requested to steer clear of the group. She added: “Kensington is a troublesome place. There’s lots of people coping with trauma, there’s plenty of contributors coping with many, many issues of their lives. And Prevention Level can solely management a lot on this planet, proper? They will’t management what occurs on the road.”

Sexual harassment occurred throughout Prevention Level, from stairwells to stockrooms, 5 staff advised The Inquirer, offering detailed accounts that in lots of instances additionally they reported to managers, they stated.

Rodriguez, the previous case supervisor, stated she witnessed fellow staffers enduring sexual harassment and assault, together with a male staffer kissing a feminine staffer with out her consent. A number of staffers had restraining orders in opposition to different staffers, she stated.

Nedev, who labored within the HIV clinic, recalled staffers commenting on their coworkers’ our bodies as they walked up and down stairs.

A supervisor who has since left the group however is anxious even now about retaliation, stated that after a coworker reported being sexually harassed, somebody within the two-person human assets division referred to as the coworker a “whore” and a “residence wrecker.” Because it turned out, the accused harasser was relationship an HR worker, stated the supervisor, who requested to not be named for worry of reprisal.

In November 2018, Parker, who labored in Prevention Level’s low-barrier shelter, reported for a day shift to organize dinner for her friends. From the stockroom, Parker heard one other line workers employee name her frantically, pointing to one thing on the bottom.

When Parker bent over to look, the staffer pushed himself behind her, groping her and smiling. Shaken, Parker referred to as her good friend Tatyana Woodard — a fellow line workers employee and, like Parker, a Black trans girl — and heard her story repeated again to her. The identical staffer had harassed Woodard the 12 months earlier than, and had additionally made transphobic feedback towards her in entrance of the friends they have been serving.

Later, Parker realized that different Prevention Level residents had additionally reported her harasser to administration in separate, earlier incidents — and stated he was moved from different shelters after previous incidents of harassment. The staffer was fired two weeks after Parker’s report.

A number of staff stated that it was broadly identified that members of a safety staff employed by the town to protect Prevention Level’s important constructing have been soliciting intercourse from feminine shoppers, a lot of whom engaged in intercourse work to outlive on the streets in Kensington. Fitch stated she heard straight from shoppers who had been solicited by members of the safety staff.

The safety guards would refuse to pay the ladies after sexual encounters in safety places of work and the basement of the primary constructing — after which refuse to guard them whereas they have been searching for companies at Prevention Level, staffers stated. The safety staff was ultimately changed.

Benitez stated rumors of sexual misconduct by the safety staff had been investigated by the safety firm that employed them and have been deemed unfounded. Metropolis officers stated they’d not been knowledgeable of those allegations.

In 2021, a gaggle of staff efficiently lobbied administration to conduct an investigation into serial sexual harassment claims.

No staffers interviewed by The Inquirer ever noticed the report or realized what was in it. Benitez stated Prevention Level isn’t legally allowed to share particulars of the report due to worker confidentiality guidelines.

The group has since overhauled its sexual harassment protocol, he stated, making it simpler to report incidents of harassment and holding trainings for workers.

Staff who’ve left Prevention Level say they’re nonetheless deeply dedicated to the group’s core mission: serving to individuals in dependancy keep alive. However they not belief that it’s performing in the most effective pursuits of staff and shoppers.

Rodriguez, who stated she was fired final fall after a dispute with a superior, nonetheless struggles with the guilt she feels when former shoppers name her asking for assist — or simply to inform her they miss her.

“On the road, there aren’t many individuals you possibly can belief — and so many people have constructed these relationships with shoppers. To be torn other than them with no transition time, no warning — now they’re utterly unstable emotionally,” Rodriguez stated. “I had one consumer break down crying, saying, ‘I’ll by no means forgive you for leaving me like this.’”

“I had one consumer break down crying, saying, ‘I’ll by no means forgive you for leaving me like this.’”

Tiff Rodriguez, a former case supervisor at Prevention Level

Different staffers who spoke with The Inquirer stated they left Prevention Level to guard their very own psychological well being — and stay nervous concerning the shoppers they left behind.

Lane stated she watched the stress of the job and lack of assist from higher-ups eat away at coworkers, a few of whom have been in restoration themselves. Over her time on the heart, she stated, she watched a number of colleagues relapse or change into homeless on the streets of Kensington, “principally discarded.”

“Persons are making an attempt to assist however they’re additionally coping with rather a lot from being in restoration themselves, after which the stress of being in a working surroundings that’s unsupportive, tremendous chaotic and poisonous,” Lane stated. “Nobody’s checking on us, ?”

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