Kensington encampment eviction, 10 weeks later: Success or failure?

"I was on the streets because I made a lot of bad decisions in my life."

Pat Loeb
August 19, 2018 - 10:49 pm

Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio


PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- Three months ago, Salvador Colon was hopelessly addicted to heroin, living on the street, taking refuge in the tunnel encampments in Kensington. This week, sober and in shelter, he started a new job at a roofing company.

"I tell myself, it's like a resurrection," he said.

Colon's turnaround is an indirect outcome of the city's pilot project to eliminate two of the tunnel encampments and is as much a reason that Liz Hersh, Director of the Office of Homeless Services, deems the project a success, as the fact that the targeted streets remain clear.

Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio

"The camps were closed, people were treated humanely, they were offered emergency housing, they were offered treatment, 50 people accepted treatement, so that model, I think, really worked," she says.

But even as she declares the pilot a win, she acknowledges that Philadelphia's opioid epidemic is still growing and the fall-out continues to plague not just Kensington, but neighborhoods all over the city.

"If we'd been hit by a tsunami, or a Hurricane Harvey, there would be a moment and a time where we could say, 'that's when this huge crisis hit us.'," Hersh said. "But because the opioid epidemic has been incremental, we don't have a time and a date to point to but the impact is the same, which is that we are under a tidal wave, an epidemic of addiction that we are still trying to find our way out of."

Encampments in four tunnels just north of Lehigh Avenue sprung up last fall. The pilot project targeted the ones on Kensington Avenue and Tulip Street. Outreach workers spent a month persuading the campers to seek treatment or respite shelter and those who did not accept were evicted on May 30. They have not returned.

But two other tunnel encampments, on Frankford Avenue and Emerald Street, remain. And others are popping up.

Campers were rousted from a section of train tracks near Amber Street and workers then removed the trees that had provided a screen and shade for them.

Single tents have gone up under bridges and expressway ramps.

"There's a seasonal element, we always see numbers go up in the summer," says Hersh, "and some people did move (from Kensington Avenue and Emerald Street) but a lot of what we're seeing is just the continued, very unfortunate and very troubling growth in the epidemic that has not yet crested."

Hersh sees hope on the horizon.

"Prescriptions have started to drop so cutting off the supply of the feeder system is starting to work and we still have capacity in the treatment system. We are seeing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel," she says.

And there are people like Salvador Colon.

"Right now, I'm in a men's shelter in North Philadelphia, ODAT (One Day at a Time)," he said. "It gives you a place to create a foundation for yourself and there are a lot of avenues you can take. It's for people who really, really, really want it. I look at all the things it provided, that I have access to and I'm jumping head first into everything I can get into-- outpatient, AA, NA, I see a therapist. I help people. And I'm seeing a huge change in myself. It feels good to come back to life."

Colon accepts full responsibility for the situation he was in until May.

"I was on the streets because I made a lot of bad decisions in my life," he says. "Drugs are definitely a major part of it, drugs and the lifestyle that comes behind drugs. I gave up just about my entire life for drugs, which left me homeless."

One day, on Kensington Avenue, he met an old school friend who'd taken the city's offer of shelter in ODAT and said he could get Colon in too.

"Normally at any other time, I would have said, 'no, I'm good' but something just like possessed me and I said, 'Yes, please, let me go with you, let's see what happens.' "

Colon can't define what made him accept.

"I wish there was a light switch that you're able to click on and off. I would pray for that for so long, for the desire to get back to being the real me and no matter how much desire I had, the light switch wouldn't go off and then through prayer and pain, one day, I don't know what the explanation is, the light switch just goes on and once you get that desire back, for me, I gotta hold on to that because, once you lose that, it could take years to get back, if you ever get it back at all."

Having treatment available when an addict hits that moment-- a strategy known as Treatment on Demand-- was crucial to the city's pilot project and Hersh says it has had a permanent affect on the service system.

"Community behavioral health has now instituted a number of policy and programmatic changes based on what they learned from the encampment that make it easier to access treatment so we moved the ball forward," she says.

Colon says he hasn't been perfect since he checked into ODAT, and he has some past mistakes still to deal with, but he feels he's making progress.

He's reconnected with his family after years of not communicating with them. He's tapped back into his spiritual life. And he's determined to make the best of the opportunity offered by his new job as a foreman for Russel Roofing.

"ODAT opened the doors for me," Colon said. "And it's been steadily growing increasingly good."