Opioid Crisis

“The opioid epidemic has been taking lives, destroying families and undermining the quality of life of Philadelphians across the city.” Mayor Jim Kenney.

Read the Mayor’s Opioid Task Force Report.

The opioid crisis increases the risk of homelessness for many Philadelphians. The following article in the philadelphiaweekly details what is happening in the Kensington neighborhood.

What happens when Kensington’s hidden heroin camps close?

Max Marin  June 28, 2017 

Gabby Dean .  . . . under the Emerald Street bridge, was living on the streets until she recently secured a bed at a women’s shelter. On the 2700 block of Emerald Street, a gaunt, bone-thin man named Michael sweeps the sidewalk under the railroad tracks where he’s been sleeping on and off for two years. He tugs at his sweatpants to show that he’s not wearing any underwear or socks.

Two days ago, the Streets Department came through and cleared out the belongings of the homeless drug addicts who had claimed space under the bridge. “They took all my clothes,” Michael says.

In Kensington, the opioid crisis and homelessness go hand in hand. The neighborhood has the largest homeless population outside of Center City, and the dozen people huddled in this tunnel, most of whom asked for their last names to be withheld, are just a fraction of the whole.

Before the Streets Department cleaned out the underpass, about 40 others had set up camp there.

Just a few blocks away, the city and railroad giant Conrail have agreed to clean up and fence off  a far more notorious encampment, which stretches bleakly along the same train line that traverses Emerald Street.

For more than two decades, thousands of addicts have been frequenting the out-of-site injection space known as “El Campamento.” Dozens currently live in squalid conditions at the site. With impending closure, many are concerned about where the unstably housed denizens of Kensington will go to continue fueling their addictions.

“If we looked at a map, people are going to continue their behavior,” says Casey O’Donnell, a psychologist and CEO of Impact Services, a Kensington nonprofit that provides housing assistance. “They’re going to find more bridges, more vacant homes, and the people that want to be out in the open because they feel safer, like at McPherson [Square], they’re going to find more open space.”

Once a month, the Streets Department clears out the tent city that begins to appear under Emerald Street between Lehigh and Somerset.

Locales such as El Campamento and McPherson Square park, where librarians are trained to administer overdose-reversing medicine, have garnered national attention in recent months. The city has stepped up its response. Harm-reduction advocates have been pitching to bring a safe injection site to the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, lesser-discussed places such as the Emerald Street tunnel underscore the sheer scope of problem.

When the warm weather strikes, this thoroughfare north of Lehigh Avenue evolves from a small refuge for regular mainstays like Michael into a full-blown shantytown, packed with mattresses and battered furniture and makeshift shelters.

Once a month, the Streets Department comes in and clears off the sidewalks during what are called “service days,” which are coordinated with the city’s Office of Homeless Services.

Lisa, whose last name is being withheld, leans against the grafittied concrete wall next to two other women. These thirty-somethings are regulars on Emerald Street. Sleeping and getting high in close quarters out in the open is far safer than staying inside a vacant house, they say. Save for when people throw objects at them from moving cars, Lisa says they feel more secure here. They can look out for each other.

“Whether you call it a community or not … whether it’s adaptive or maladaptive, there is a network and a community of people that are in their addiction,” O’Donnell says. “And they haven’t stopped being human just because they use drugs to manage pain.”

In a few weeks time, dozens of others will likely join the crowd. Complaints will arise from neighbors. Cleaning crews and police officers will disperse the burgeoning tent city once again before it gets out of control.

“There’s a core group of us,” Lisa says. “We do our best to try to keep it clean and safe, but then it gets to be too many people.”

The Streets Department gives the homeless and addicted a chance to move their belongings before they service the underpass. (Some, like Michael, say they missed that opportunity last week.) An outreach team from the Department of Behavioral Health and Disability Services also intervenes to offer pathways to social services and housing.

“And when they say yes, we move heaven and earth” to help them, says Liz Hersch, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services.

But the city’s emergency housing facilities operate at 90 to 120 percent of capacity most of the time, Hersch added, and there are not enough permanent housing units to meet the need for the at-risk homeless population. “We have kind of a clogged pipe system,” she said. “People come in but we don’t have the housing on the other end for them to get to.”

Michael sweeps up the remaining debris and used needles on Emerald Street.

At least 241 street homeless or unstably housed individuals reside on the streets Kensington, according to a 2015 survey conducted by multiple neighborhood organizations. Some who work in the neighborhood believe the number to be much higher. Under Emerald Street bridge, they hail from as close as Fishtown and as far as Florida.

Access to treatment remains the most daunting problem in Philly, especially coming off a year that saw 907 fatal drug overdoses. In the last 18 months, the city has expanded publicly funded outpatient and residential substance abuse treatment slots from 500 to 1,000, said a spokesman for DBHIDS. For those under Emerald Street, however, it’s not always as simple as wanting help. One woman, who declined to give her name, said she couldn’t get into treatment because she doesn’t have the proper identification. Others said they have gone into treatment programs, but they wound up back on the streets where they inevitably relapsed. Non-English speaking addicts, many of whom come to Philly from Puerto Rico for drug treatment through a practice known as “air bridge,” face even more hurdles.

In a matter of weeks, those living and using drugs in the railroad gulch at El Campamento may be searching for new surroundings — whether in treatment or in a new part of the neighborhood.

To stymie displacement, outreach teams are providing on-the-ground intervention near the site to connect drug users with social services, whether it be referring them to Prevention Point for medical care or to rehab facilities for longer-term treatment.

Since May, outreach teams have engaged 259 individuals near El Campamento, says DBHIDs, which is orchestrating the effort with neighborhood organizations like Impact Services and Prevention Point. Nine people have since been placed in treatment, one woman in a Safe Haven, a woman’s shelter. Two people are now being processed for by Pathways to Housing, which connects at-risk homeless to permanent housing.

Back on Emerald Street, Lisa wonders who’s next from her crew to leave the streets for help or housing. Inevitably though, some will continue to find places to sustain their drug habit, whether in a vacant lot, an abandoned house or under I-95.

Michael is still sweeping up a stretch of the sidewalk, using his broom to unclog trash from sewer drain. There are crumpled beer cans, cigarette butts, and food wrappers, but he’s more concerned about the used hypodermic needles. Every time he talks to neighbors, he says he offers an apology and promises to keep the sidewalk clean.

“I may shoot dope, but if it was my kid who got poked with a needle I’d want to kill every addict down here,” he said.