Philadelphia officials chip away at drug encampments in Kensington

Pat Loeb
November 16, 2018 - 10:54 pm
kensington drug encampments

Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- Kenney administration officials said they are chipping away at the opioid encampments in Kensington, in a Friday update on what the city calls the Resilience Project, designed to address the problem. But City Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez questioned some of the strategies the city is using and made it clear that future efforts should not rely on respite centers in Kensington.

"We are overburdened. You cannot put any more respite sites in Kensington. No more," she said, bolting up from her seat during the briefing, after the mayor extolled the approach the city has taken, not criminalizing addiction and providing daytime respite for drug users displaced from the encampments.

"It is unfair to a community you say you're trying to help if all you're going to do is make it convenient for [drug users] to be at a respite and then come back to the street," she said.

The disagreement on tactics notwithstanding, the councilwoman said she was grateful for the resources the city had poured into the effort since Mayor Jim Kenney declared the area a "disaster" six weeks ago and ordered an emergency response.

READ: Philly mayor signs executive order to deal with local opioid 'disaster'

Seven city officials detailed steps their departments have taken since then, including most significantly clearing an encampment on Frankford Avenue, leaving just one encampment remaining of the four that sprung up last year.

There have also been other measures, including large scale clean-ups, safe passage corridors to two schools starting after Thanksgiving, a mobile Medication-Assisted Treatment team and the beginning of outreach to prepare for the clearing of the remaining encampment on Emerald Street, often referred to as "Emerald City."

The closing of the other three camps and the clear notice that Emerald Street is next seems to have produced something of a siege mentality in Emerald City.

kensington drug encampments
Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio

Where campers once were willing to share their stories, they appear less trusting and made it clear during a visit by KYW Newsradio on Friday that reporters are not welcome.

"Just keep walking, all right? That way you won't get in trouble," said one man, furtively, as he tried to explain the other campers' hostility. "I know you're a reporter and I know this is just so overwhelming to people that people live under here like this, but guess what, they're living. This is their lives, so to them, they don't see it like you see it. To them, this is one day at a time."

Neighbors, though, are happy the encampments are closing.

"Just standing here waiting for the bus in the morning, the smell was just atrocious," said Laura Morgan, as she waited near where the Frankford Avenue encampment had recently been cleared. "There were people coming up and asking you for money and half of them were drugged up. So I'm glad to see it gone."

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

Louis Santiago says working at Joel's Tire Shop at the corner of Frankford and Lehigh Avenues is much improved.

"There's no smell," he said. "It used to smell like piss and s**t. Now you can stand out here and breath the fresh air."

Much, of course, remains to be done, as city officials acknowledge. The Resilience Project outlines goals through June of 2019, including keeping the encampments closed and closing any new ones that appear.

Resilience Project
Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio

Quinones Sanchez insists they must include more law enforcement solutions.

"There's no consequences for anybody," she said. "There's no consequences for the drug dealers because we only want to go after the big ones. There's no consequences to the drug users because we're not disrupting their behavior and removing them from the area. Where's the 'or else?'"

READ: Philly unveils new plan to address opioid crisis

Neighbor Donna Aument supports her position. 

"I know you don't want to arrest the people laying all over K&A (Kensington and Allegheny Avenues)," she said, "but, like the councilwoman says, we just can't take any more."

Donna Aument
Pat Loeb | KYW Newsradio

Aument says the respites on Kensington Avenue have disrupted what the community hoped would a revitalization of the corridor.

"We just are bringing our avenue back and they're killing our stores," she said. "Just to go to Hoagies Plus in the morning, Nancy has to chase four and five off the step to get in. One of my girls has to pay a dollar to get up the El step at 4 o'clock in the morning for the first bus, otherwise they won't let her up the El. Look at K&A. They're laying all over the sidewalks. They're shooting needles in their neck, standing right out on the sidewalk."

Mayor Kenney is clearly frustrated but continues to express confidence in the Resilience Project. 

"We have to react to issues we didn't cause," he said at the briefing. "We didn't cause pharmaceutical companies to tell people this stuff wasn't addictive. We didn't cause doctors to overprescribe medication. We didn't cause the flow of heroin in here. What we can control, we are. We're doing everything that we can legally and compassionately but it's a national issue."