At heroin encampment, time to stop talking and start cleaning

Philadelphia Police Inspector Michael McCarrick, left, pointed out areas where drug users will access the shooting gallery under the bridge at the the Conrail tracks in Fairhill. The city is threatening to sue Conrail for not cleaning and sealing up the area.

When I first called Conrail, asking what they were going to do about the heroin encampment along the railroad tracks in Fairhill two years ago, I was met with a big ehhhhhhhhh.

The place where human beings live in hovels and die in the dirt? Where trash rises like mountains and decades of hypodermic needles layer the earth? The place that has long been a pit of suffering and a plague upon a neighborhood?

Nope, said the railroad company, it wasn’t aware of any complaints.

Honestly, city and state officials weren’t much better. They were unwilling to exert the pressure needed to get the half-mile gorge cleaned up and find the people help.

It had long been like that with the tent city in Fairhill that is known to its 120 or so inhabitants as El Campamento. Promises were made and broken. The camp endured. Lives lingered. Needles piled.

Now, the ball is kind of rolling. The city is doing what it should have been doing ages ago. Mayor Kenney and his managing director, Mike DiBerardinis, have summoned city agencies to figure out drug-treatment and housing options for the people living and dying in the muck at El Campamento. They are spending money to clean and police the corridor, about $10 million last year – and sending in more outreach teams. Trash is being hauled away. About 100 tons a month. It’s making a dent, somewhat.

And until a few weeks ago the city and Conrail – which owns the tracks and some of the land along them – say they were having productive conversations on how to clean and seal the area. But then the talking stopped.

On Thursday, the behind-the-scenes bickering went public when Kenney declared the train gorge, which runs from Second Street and Indiana Avenue to Kensington Avenue, to be a public-health nuisance. It’s a big and needed step.

If about a decade late.

The mayor then slapped Conrail with a slew of property-maintenance violations for failing to clean and fence its land. He gave the corporation 30 days, threatened a lawsuit.

For its part, Conrail lamented the city’s “adversarial” tone. It's working with the community on “comprehensive solutions.” In short, it's saying the city is being a bunch of meanies.

Look, Conrail may have some legitimate beefs about what’s been going on at the bargaining table. I don’t know, maybe the city could brush up on its etiquette. And it’s true that the city let the camp fester for way too long – an easy and shameful reminder of the worth, or lack thereof, that we have long ascribed to the most desperate Philadelphians.

But Conrail needs to act. And it needs to stop acting as if it is offering alternate solutions. It is standing in the way.

There’s no honor badge for participation. Not when you map out the city’s nearly 900 overdoses last year and the thickest cluster is found at the heart of El Campamento. Not when the medical examiner says 17 people died there last year – about one person every three weeks – and 29 more overdosed. Not when police and EMTs and social workers and volunteers take their health in their hands every time they traverse the needle-strewn slopes. Not while a neighborhood suffers.

As my colleague Alfred Lubrano has long reported, helping the people in the camp will be complicated. Providing addiction treatment and finding housing for them will pose the biggest challenges. Some won’t want help.

And as my colleagues Stephanie Farr and Sam Wood reported in their  recent look at the encampment, nothing will happen unless everyone gets to the table and gets to work. Now.

The posturing on both sides needs to end. The city needs to keep moving forward. And Conrail needs to clean up its land and stop complaining how it’s not fair.  

Because you know what’s not fair? That this place ever existed at all.