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Philly’s use of some opioid dollars for Kensington is “non-compliant,” per state trust. Future funding is in question.

The state trust that oversees the disbursement of opioid settlement dollars says Philadelphia improperly used $7.5 million on eviction prevention, home repair, and improvements to schools and parks.

McPherson Square Park is one of six parks benefiting from federal opioid settlement dollars. A state trust deemed that spending is noncompliant this week, which could affect future distribution of funds. (File Photo by Natalie Kerr)

A Pennsylvania trust that oversees the local distribution of federal opioid settlement dollars voted Thursday that Philadelphia improperly used  $7.5 million for projects to improve quality of life in Kensington.  

Trust members argued the spending was “noncompliant” with a court order outlining how the funds should be spent.

The Pennsylvania Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust is an independent body tasked with disbursing and monitoring funds allotted to PA as a result of a federal lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors. 

The trust won’t take back the money, but it could reduce or withhold next year’s opioid settlement dollars, according to the court order. That money currently funds home repairs, eviction and foreclosure prevention, and improvements to schools and parks in Kensington. The city already gave the $7.5 million to Kensington nonprofits Impact Services and New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) for distribution. 

“Nobody doubts that Kensington needs these things, and we'd love to see Philadelphia be able to fund it out. We just can't feel we're fulfilling our responsibilities and allow these kinds of things to be paid for out of opioid funds,” said Tom VanKirk, chairperson of the trust. 

Philadelphia leaders can pursue pathways to “dispute and appeal” the decision, according to Tumar Alexander, a senior advisor in Mayor Cherelle Parker’s administration and a member of the trust who voted against the decision. 

He said the city is talking about finding other ways to support existing projects.

“We support the revitalization and redevelopment of this community for the existing neighbors that live through this,” Alexander said, adding that the funding was meant to address community trauma inflicted by the opioid epidemic over the last few decades. 

Impact Services and NKCDC are still distributing the funds. The groups’ leaders say the funding has facilitated home repairs for about 100 people, eviction and foreclosure prevention for 75-100 families, and supported the addition of new fences, seating and curling equipment at Scanlon Playground. Another five parks and six schools will benefit from the funding, they said. 

Members of the trust argued that opioid settlement funding is not intended to support community development. 

Casey O’Donnell of Impact Services and Bill McKinney of NKCDC both say settlement funding should be used to address root causes of the opioid epidemic, such as poverty and housing insecurity.

 “A lot of the guys there on the corner they're not making millions of bucks,” McKinney said. “They’re making enough money to keep their family in their home sometimes.”

“Every time you create a situation where someone doesn't have to be out there ... you're reducing the amount of spaces essentially, where people are out there providing drugs within the community.” 

O’Donnell said increasing access to green space is also crucial. 

“It’s not just direct health care or actual treatment for addiction, it’s much broader than that,” O’Donnell said. “Increasing safety increases longevity. And if there’s any neighborhood that’s suffered from the opioid crisis, it’s Kensington.”

McKinney said the vote points to a reductionist way of thinking about prevention, and that members of the trust should “come visit” before making decisions about Kensington. 

“Here we are, with an opportunity to expand our thinking, and the first thing we do is we regress,” McKinney said. “Everyone is getting beat up by this. And the solutions need to hit everybody.” 

Dr. Bill McKinney, the executive director of NKCDC, introduces Noelle Foizen, who leads the City of Philadelphia's Opioid Response Unit, at a press conference on Feb. 22, 2024. (Photo by Khysir Carter)

NKCDC is distributing $1.5 million for eviction and foreclosure prevention and $2 million for schools.  

The organization has disbursed under $500,000 for housing stability so far, McKinney said. Since January 2023, the six schools and their stakeholders have been planning how they want to use the opioid funds. Those projects are about to go into effect, according to McKinney.

The trust’s 13 members include state lawmakers, county commissioners, and public health leaders. Senator Christine Tartaglione, a trust member who represents the Kensington area, voted that Philly’s use of the funds was noncompliant.

“The next round, the city now knows what’s allowed and what’s not allowed,” she said. “This is my district, it’s ground zero. And I just think we have to do the letter of the law when it comes to Exhibit E.”

Exhibit E is an opioid settlement document that lists recommended strategies for responding to the opioid epidemic.

Philadelphia will receive about $200 million in opioid settlement funds over the next 18 years. About $20 million has been distributed so far – including the $7.5 million for Impact Services and NKCDC. 

The remaining funding went to nonprofit groups through the Overdose Prevention and Community Healing Fund, as well as citywide outreach and engagement, overdose response, treatment initiatives, housing services, and alternatives to incarceration. 

The city recently announced the 43 organizations that are receiving the next round of grants – a total of $3.1 million. 

The five Kensington nonprofits that were selected to receive $20,000 each include:

  • Angels in Motion
  • Klean Kensington
  • Operation Save Our City
  • St. Mark’s Church, Frankford
  • Socks for the Streets

The five Kensington nonprofits that were selected to receive $100,000 each include:

  • Safe-Hub Philadelphia 
  • Faith, Health and Healing 
  • Courage Medicine Health Center Inc. 
  • Fab Youth Philly 
  • Hope, Inc 
  • Mother Mercy House 
  • Philly Bridge & Jawn 
  • The Lighthouse 

And there’s more funding coming –in April, the city law department announced a $110 million settlement in a lawsuit against Walgreens. That money, to be distributed over the next five years, will be used on substance use education, treatment, prevention, and community engagement efforts according to the city. Parker said the $110 million will also support her Kensington Community Revival Plan. 

*Jillian Bauer-Reese contributed reporting to this story