Progress report on 'resilience project' highlights difficulty of cleaning up Kensington

Pat Loeb
July 01, 2019 - 4:00 am
Progress report on 'resilience project' highlights difficulty of cleaning up Kensington .

Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Kensington Avenue near Somerset at 9 a.m. looks like some warped Tai Chi class.

Men and women slowly bending toward the sidewalk until they catch themselves, bolt up, and begin the process again. 

It's called "the dip," a visible sign of opioid use.

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"From here all the way to over there is a disaster," said a resident named Giselle, gesturing to an indefinite point north. "You find needles everywhere. People standing like that. It's very sad."

Giselle's assessment, last week, came just as the city was releasing a progress report on the "Resilience Project," an $8 million effort that Mayor Jim Kenney launched last October to try to restore order to an area where drug users had moved in like an occupying force.

The report shared some impressive statistics that only served to highlight how intractable the problem is.

"What is hard for all of us is we know how hard we've worked. We know that we've worked differently, we know that we've put in more resources than we ever have before but the problems," said managing director Brian Abernathy, "so, so many problems."

Among the program's successes the city claims:

  • Clearing hundreds of people camping in tunnels on Kensington Avenue and three nearby streets without incident.

  • Providing shelter for 548 people.

  • Removing 376 tons of trash, including 24,000 used needles.

  • Towing away 600 abandoned vehicles.

  • Engaging 750 people with police-assisted diversion.

  • Arresting 180 people on bench warrants.

Yet, when residents and business owners were asked if the situation in the neighborhood had improved, no one said yes.

"It's worse," said the owner of Martin's Deli under the El tracks. "Homeless people, drug addicts, they're everywhere, every corner. Since they cleaned the bridge, they're just all over the place."

Even as workers in the city's Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP) swept the street a block away, the Martin's owner, who wished not to be identified by name, said trash and discarded needles continue to be a problem.

"Me and my employees, every 10 or 15 minutes, we swipe up the street to make sure there's no needles on the sidewalk because I don't want little kids to step on the needles," he said.

He did say he's noticed a larger police presence lately. 

"It seems like the Philadelphia police are trying their best to clear all the drug addicts and drug dealers and homeless people," he said. "But it's very hard."

For all that, he says it hasn't affected his business, unlike the restaurant across the street, where the owner didn't even want the name of the restaurant used.

"We get threats almost every day," she said. "We try to do the right thing and the drug people, they give us a hard time. They abuse us so much sometime we just go in the back and cry. Sometimes I say I feel like I'm living in hell while I'm trying to survive."

Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio

A stack of tables and a stack of benches stood in a back corner unbolted and disassembled because people would sleep in them.

"You cannot do business," she said. "And when you call the police, it takes forever to come in. Last time, they fight here and police come and ask for our camera and one guy come in and threaten us, 'you have no right to give the video to police.' They threaten us like that. 'You're business is going to shut down.'"

Abernathy is sympathetic.

"It is unacceptable, the level of challenges this community is facing," he said.

But he adds, the problem was decades in the making and will take years to solve.

"For too long we were perfectly happy in containing the challenges of Kensington in Kensington and that's how we got here," he added. 

Now, he says, the city is committed to seeing the effort through. Kenney put $36 million dollars for the project in the five-year budget plan.