On the morning of August 18, underneath the El stop at Kensington and Allegheny avenues, a train rattles by overhead as a man in basketball shorts crosses the street before lurching to a stop. His eyes close. Horns start honking. And when the traffic light turns green, he’s still there, a man now yelling from a Mack truck at him to “get out of the road.”
Any given day, a walk down Kensington Avenue yields ample reminders that the neighborhood is the “aortic valve of the region’s opioid crisis,” as Billy Penn’s Max Marin recently put it. They’re visible within seconds of exiting the subway: injections in broad daylight, tent encampments, legions of trash and squalor.
It’s a ready-made narrative for the media to focus on, this street-level view of the neighborhood. But the unfolding crisis of Kensington looks a bit different when it’s the view from your living room window.
“I live across from the library in McPherson Square Park,” says Bill McKinney, the executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation. “At any given moment there’s about 150 people or so actively using [drugs] in the park, 70 to 80 sleeping there at night in front of the library, which has been shut down—a public library,” he says. “Especially with the opioid epidemic, almost 100 percent of the services up here became geared toward those suffering from addiction. There’s no longer anything for the residents, to the point that residents’ own trauma—all the things that they’re suffering from as a result of this—is being ignored.”
McKinney, who says he has lived in Kensington for 20-plus years, is one of a growing chorus of voices from within the neighborhood who’re calling for reimagined solutions in Kensington. “I mean, there’s literally hundreds of millions of dollars just moving through here in the drug trade, right?” says McKinney.
“The whole economy of this community is based around that. If you want to get rid of that, you need hundreds of millions of dollars in other things in the community, like workforce development.” (Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro told the Inquirer earlier this year that Kensington was “approaching a billion dollar enterprise” where on a single block sellers can make upwards of $60,000 a day in drug sales.)
“I think Kensington folks are some of the most empathetic and the most caring folks within the city … But there’s got to be a balance right now,” McKinney says.
Of late, there have been escalating concerns over violence that have added urgency to the situation in the neighborhood. “It’s the perspective of everyone, residents and small business owners, that they feel uncomfortable walking on their own streets in their own neighborhood,” says Adriana Abizadeh, the executive director of the Kensington Corridor Trust, whose mission is to foster equitable development among local residents. “The residents of Kensington have been calling for the ability to utilize this space, to walk down the sidewalk, to access the El.”
Anger over the status quo has been building for months. Last December, residents and activists organized a campaign against “journalists voyeurs” coming into their neighborhood. In May, following the sudden, temporary closure of the highly trafficked El stop at Somerset—a decision made by SEPTA that was criticized for its lack of advanced warning—community members protested and forced the reopening of the station.
Then, on August 11, prior to a planned City Council meeting to discuss quality-of-life issues in Kensington, nearly 100 residents marched through the streets chanting “Where Is Jim Kenney?”—a march that drew support from a broad coalition of groups, including both harm reduction groups and addiction treatment specialists, which have at times had their own fraught relationships with residents.
A summer of angst culminated with the city’s order to clear out two homeless encampments in Kensington on August 18. But it’s hard for many community members to believe the clear-out will be a turning point.
“Just because the encampments have been dispersed does not mean that folks are gone, and it does not mean they are receiving the treatments and services that they need” says Abizadeh. “Residents deserve and have a right to know what is the next plan of action.”
A plan that worked—until it didn’t
Over the last five years, there has been no shortage of plans and solutions thrown Kensington’s way. In fact, it was only three years ago that the city made an attempt at a clear-out strategy to address the growing homeless population there.
In the spring of 2018, Kenney ordered the cleanup of two encampments—one of them along Kensington Avenue and the other on Tulip Street—where roughly 90 people were sleeping at night. Outside evaluators later gave the plan overall positive marks, reporting that 49 percent of the individuals engaged by the city received at least one placement to housing or treatment services.
By the end of 2018, Kenney ordered the clear-out of two additional encampments and unveiled an emergency response group dedicated to ongoing work in Kensington and the surrounding neighborhoods hit hardest by this latest drug epidemic: the Philadelphia Resilience Project, created through an executive order.
The Resilience Project brought together more than 35 city agencies and departments with seven key mission areas: reducing encampments, trash, crime, and drug overdoses; increasing medication-assisted treatment among opioid users; and mobilizing community response. Less than a year into its 14-month run, the Resilience Project released a progress report claiming numerous improvements, including: 100 new shelter beds; the removal of 606 abandoned vehicles, 376 tons of trash, and tens of thousands of needles; the installation of new lights and cameras along the business corridor.
And here was the most significant takeaway from the June 2019 report: “the current street homeless population is about half what it was in summer 2018.” On the heels of its short-term success, Kenney committed $36 million in his five-year plan to the Resilience Project and extended the executive order through the end of 2019.
When the pandemic struck, progress was quickly reversed. The neighborhood’s illicit-yet-visible drug market attracted more customers as opioid overdoses spiked not only in Philly, but across the state and country as well. At the time of the August 18 clearout, estimates of the number of homeless individuals in Kensington varied, but police put that number at 650, which was close to peak levels in 2018.
“If I was able to sit in front of the mayor, I would tell him to come to Kensington and be present with all of this—and then tell me that you’re unwilling to take action,” says Casey O’Donnell.
In July, a block captain from Kensington named Shawn McClain was robbed and beaten by encampment-dwellers after picking up a prescription from the pharmacy on Kensington Avenue. It came on the heels of numerous reports in the spring of teenagers assaulting encampment-dwellers with BB guns, bricks, bats, and fists, which generated a rash of stories. “Philly leaders should support homeless people in Kensington just as they did in Center City” ran a headline in the opinion section of The Inquirer.
McKinney takes issue with some of that coverage. “The same people who are shouting at Kensington folks and saying, you’re not being nice to whoever, they don’t want their own children near Kensington,” he says. “I think Kensington folks are some of the most empathetic and the most caring folks within the city … But there’s got to be a balance right now.”
Although researchers have repeatedly found that about two-thirds of homeless individuals in Kensington say they are from Philadelphia, it’s less clear from McKinney’s view on the ground. “If you go on my block right now, maybe half the cars are from Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, I mean it’s all over,” McKinney says. “Folks are coming from all over because, as they’ll tell residents, they know Kensington is an open-air drug market.”
“We need investment in every way”
Kensington, of course, isn’t alone in dealing with homelessness. The number of homeless individuals in the U.S. has increased each of the past five years, and the amount of people living inside tents and sleeping bags (and outside of shelters) recently crossed the 50-percent threshold nationwide.
But other cities have strategically deployed resources to discourage encampments and prevent a situation like what’s returned to Kensington since 2020. Las Cruces, New Mexico, developed a semi-supervised permanent encampment for homeless individuals alongside a co-located service center to reduce encampments and increase enrollment in various programs.
Washington State now permits religious organizations to temporarily host encampments on their property. In Vancouver, the city began offering public land for self-sheltering as a way of discouraging tents in residential and commercial areas. In Las Vegas, rather than clear encampments, city officials built a $5.9 million courtyard next to a mental-health services center.
However, none of those cities had a billion-dollar open-air drug market to contend with on top of the homeless encampments. Perhaps the closest corollary to what’s happening in the Philly River Wards was in Los Angeles, where an encampment known for drug use overwhelmed Echo Park Lake. The city’s solution was to close the park (for renovations) and prevent anyone from reentering, a move later criticized for dispersing the problem, rather than adequately addressing it.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the amount of resources it takes to move people who have nowhere else to go is “costly and counterproductive, for both individuals and communities.” Its 2017 white paper “Tent Cities” further reads:
Honolulu, HI spends $15,000 per week—3/4 of a million dollars a year—sweeping people living in homeless encampments, many of whom simply move around the corner during the sweep and then return a day later. Washington, D.C. spent more than $172,000 in just three months on sweeps. Research shows that housing is the most effective approach to end homelessness with a larger return on investment. Beyond this misuse of resources, sweeping encampments too often harms individuals by destroying their belongings, including their shelter, ID and other important documents, medications, and mementos. More often than not, this leaves the homeless person in a worse position than before, with a more difficult path to exit homelessness. Moreover, sweeps frequently destroy the relationships that outreach workers have built with residents, and that residents have built with each other, again, putting further barriers between residents and permanent housing.
Developing an equitable improvement plan for Kensington is a complex challenge, in part due to the historical lack of investments in the neighborhood.
“We need investment in every way, shape, and form you can imagine,” says Abizadeh. “Investment into people becoming homeowners. Investment into the folks who live here rather than the ones that extract capital. And also an investment in listening—I’ve worked in tons of urban environments. Kensington is one of the best-organized neighborhoods with RCOs, block captains, and civic leaders. These folks show up! They turn out! We need to listen to them. Do they have all the solutions? Maybe not. Do they have something to contribute? Absolutely.”
A moral imperative
Of course, there have been other city-led initiatives since the Resilience Project. Currently, the managing director’s office oversees the Opioid Response Unit (ORU), a successor of sorts to the Resilience Project. According to the City, the ORU team is comprised of three full-time staff (an executive director, project manager, and AmeriCorps VISTA) who are in charge of Philly’s multi-departmental response to the opioid epidemic.
Additionally, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez released her own Restorative Investment Plan for Kensington Residents. Plus there’s the city-led Kensington Community Resilience Fund, a public-private partnership that recently awarded $200,000 in grants to grassroots organizations aiming to beautify the neighborhood and battle the opioid epidemic.
“Two hundred thousand dollars? That’s not even enough to build one house,” McKinney says. “Just think about it that way. We need to address the scale [of the problem].”
None of the current initiatives have the dedicated funding stream of the Resilience Project, or the same laser focus on Kensington and its surrounding areas. It’s not unlike what happened with the City’s fight against gun violence: Despite successful pilots of both Cure Violence (in North Philly) and Focussed Deterrence (South Philly) that reduced shootings in 2014, Mayor Kenney abandoned both violence-fighting programs—and homicides have continued to increase. Similarly, despite the apparent progress made through the resource-intensive Resilience Project, the City has materially moved on—and the problems have surged.
Of course, resources became scarce during the pandemic; of course, attention shifted away to the immediate effects of Covid-19. Eva Gladstein and Liz Hersh, the city’s director of Homeless Services, have citywide agendas to oversee, not just Kensington. But something’s got to give.
“I’m not sure that words matter anymore,” says Casey O’Donnell, president of Impact Services, a stalwart nonprofit in the neighborhood. “But if I was able to sit in front of the mayor, I would tell him to come to Kensington and be present with all of this—and then tell me that you’re unwilling to take action.”
“Almost 100 percent of the services up here became geared toward those suffering from addiction,” says McKinney. “There’s no longer anything for the residents, to the point that residents’ own trauma—all the things that they’re suffering from as a result of this—is being ignored.”
The August 18 clear-out arrived months after it was originally scheduled to take place, due to a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality, which was eventually dropped in July. “This was the culmination of the neighborhood constantly reaching out to the City, in addition to public forums and protesting,” says Abizadeh of the Kensington Corridor Trust. “I do think that the City is making an attempt at least to hear the residents and address the issues.”
By the end of the afternoon, the City declared the effort a success, showcasing the power of its inter-departmental coordination. In the sweltering heat, a potpourri of workers from various agencies and departments—including the Office of Emergency Management, Office of Homeless Services, Streets Department, CLIP, Department of Behavioral Health and more—distributed plastic bins and information about housing and recovery services. The City would report that more than a dozen people accepted temporary housing that day, while another three dozen left the two encampments.
Overseeing the clear-out, Gladstein said that this was the kind of coordinated effort made possible by the ORU through the leadership of the managing director’s office. “People seem to think that this issue is just Homeless Services’ responsibility or just Behavior Health’s responsibility, but no. It’s an all-hands on deck effort. And that’s how the managing director’s office operates,” Gladstein said.
To that end, one of the officers stationed below the El, upon hearing the commotion in the intersection with the nodding-off man, left the police perimeter to tap the man awake and escort him to the sidewalk.
But community members wonder if the current approach through the ORU amounts to enough leadership to solve anything. “People living in the neighborhood can’t get an answer about who is making decisions and who is accountable for those decisions,” says O’Donnell. “There appears to be no coherent strategy or process of decision-making that is clear, which suggests that nobody is willing to make decisions.”
One thing’s for certain. If something doesn’t happen soon, the chants from within Kensington are bound to grow louder. “This is the first time I’ve seen homeless advocates, harm reductionists, residents, ActUp, and other activist groups all coming together to say the city needs to take action now,” says O’Donnell. “The city is going to have to take fairly radical action.”
The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic mobility. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
Header photo: The March for Safety + Solutions earlier this year | Photo by Rodney Mobley / NKCDC