Deadline looms for clearing Kensington encampments: 'I really have nowhere to go'

"I do want to get clean and I do want to get help but, you know, it's really tough."

Pat Loeb
May 28, 2018 - 7:40 pm

Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A pilot project to remove encampments of people from two tunnels in Kensington is about to expire. 

On Wednesday, anyone who hasn't left voluntarily will have their belongings crated up and moved and police will issue citations to those who remain.

Outreach workers have spent the past 28 days making daily visits and providing immediate services — either respite shelter or rehab treatment — for those who want it. The city says more than 100 people have accepted shelter — more in the first three weeks of the program than in the previous six months — and about 35 percent of them have entered treatment.

"We are seeing a lot of successes," said Liz Hersh, director of the Philadelphia's Office of Homeless Services. "What we're learning from this pilot will help us inform the rest of the system so it can rise to the level of need that has come with this huge [opioid] epidemic."

Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio

Still, dozens of people, along with their tents, furniture, shopping carts and suitcases, remain in the tunnels and it's clear they are not moving voluntarily.

"I'm a little concerned because I really have nowhere to go," said one man living in the tunnel.

He says he is skeptical that the city's offer of treatment would help him.

"I do want to get clean and I do want to get help but, you know, it's really tough and being in an environment like this, where there's an opioid epidemic. It's everywhere you go and so the temptation's always there," he explained.

As he spoke, a young woman sat precariously on a milk crate, nearby, listing to one side, her eyes drooping and her head sagging in the unmistakable pose of an opioid high.

The tunnel encampments just north of Lehigh Avenue on Tulip, Frankford, Emerald Streets and Kensington Avenue — are one of the most complex problems to arise from the opioid epidemic.

The city says they took a careful approach to addressing them, developing a pilot program just for Tulip and Kensington Avenue, reviewing it with neighbors, taking surveys of the campers to create a by-name list of their individual needs, interests, and barriers to getting services.

Officials say they even gave residents of the encampment 30 days to accept services before, as a last step, physically removing the camps.

"We don't have resources to solve the whole problem," Hersh said. "What we wanted to do was to try a model to see if it would work and to learn from it and to show what could work if we did have the resources. I think what the pilot is really showing us is that when we do offer the opportunity for people to get what they really need, whether it's shelter first or treatment that's easy so the moment they want to take it on, they can, that when we do our jobs better it makes it easier for people to accept the services they really want."

Even on Memorial Day, the city outreach team walked down Tulip Street, asking if campers needed anything.

"Outreach in the house," they called into the tents.

"Do you have any water?" one man from the encampment asked before going with one of the workers to bring back several bottles.

A 43-year-old man in a heavily soiled orange sweatshirt approached the other. 

"I want to go to treatment and then come in," he said, then explained that he'd already gone to one rehab center but was turned away because he didn't have a picture ID. 

Lost ID is a common problem among the homeless and one of the issues the pilot program addressed, providing ID to nearly three dozen people, Hersh said.

The man on Tulip said he was one of them but the intake center was holding it for him and had sent the rehab center the wrong paperwork. 

"Would you be willing to try again?" asked the outreach worker.

The man said he would, but resisted her suggestion of a long term placement of three months or more.

"Thirty days, that's all I want," he said.

"And what would your plan be after the 30 days?" she asked.

"After the 30 days, I'm going to try to go to the recovery house from there. And see if I can go, from there, get a job," he replied.

"All of those are good plans," she said and gesturing toward the cart where he collects metal cans added, "You work hard now. But you work for an addiction, which doesn't get you anywhere. But it doesn't mean you're not a good person or a hard worker. You are."

Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio

They soon had a plan to take him to the intake center later in the day.

"We are moving the ball forward," said Hersh. "And that is what we could do. That's what we committed to doing. That's what we have what we think is a moral obligation to do."

Those who don't accept services by Wednesday will bear the impact of the final piece of the plan. 

The Department of Licenses and Inspections will arrive to clear the street.

Campers will be given the option of crating up their things and writing their name on the crate. The crates will be stored at Prevention Point, one of the respite providers, until July.

Police will enforce the closure and issue tickets that carry a $20 fine to those who don't leave.

"As city government, we have to balance the needs of the neighborhood as well as the campers so we are doing that as best we can, in a way that we think is transparent," Hersh said. "If I could wave a magic wand and get everybody in, are you kidding? Absolutely! But what we are trying to do, after several months of study and input from people with lived experience, input from drug treatment professionals, input from neighbors, this is the best we can do. So I'm comfortable, I'm proud actually, and our people are proud of the work we have done, that we have not sat by, that we haven't walled ourselves off, and we're hoping that we'll be able to build on this and do more."