Camp Heroin: Fairhill's 'El Campamento,' where the drugs make the rules

Charito Morales, a registered nurse and advocate, leads a group through “El Campamento,” a camp of homeless drug users under a railroad bridge in Fairhill. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

El Campamento bristles with heroin needles.

They're buried in the dirt, decade after decade of them, embedded in layers of mud and rock like geologic strata telling the story of the doomed.

They are carried casually by the hollow-eyed, frenetic drug users who live here beside the Conrail tracks in Fairhill, tucked behind people's ears or slid into back pockets for use later - but not much later.

They are, ultimately, plunged into necks, arms, and the skin between toes, the daggers delivering chemical assurances of bliss in seven seconds.

Needles help the people who are condemned to live here survive. Needles maintain order in a hive of 75 to 120 homeless people who once didn't need the heroin, but now don't even pretend it isn't their salvation.

"I fix, I get well," said Victor Alvarado, 49, who has lived here on and off for more than 20 years. Neither Alvarado nor anyone else in the city seems to know exactly how long the camp has been here.

Addicted to cocaine and heroin in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, Alvarado was sent to an Olney recovery house by his mother. Her minister had urged his journey, promising a Pennsylvania paradise where dope hunger is erased. The island-to-mainland escape route is known as Air Bridge.

"My mom was illiterate, a house cleaner, but they painted a picture for her," said Alvarado, whose wide eyes and easy smile make him seem healthier than most of the others down here.

When Alvarado got to Olney, he found no treatment, just accusations of moral weakness and grubbing for his monthly food-stamp allotment.

"I was their whore," Alvarado said. "So I came here. Isn't it terrible? Isn't it inhumane?"

Alvarado's mother visited him in the camp once, spending precious maid money to fly.

"What do you live in a tent for?" Alvarado's mother asked, crying.

"She went back to Puerto Rico, and I found out she died after she saw me," he said. "It killed her spirit to find out what happened to me. She died saying to herself, 'They really left my boy in the street.' "

Nobody makes you take heroin. Everyone here knows that. But for some reason you do, and then, if you're especially unlucky, you wind up in the pit of El Campamento.

The camp has had unofficial mayors who tell newcomers how to behave, where to go to the bathroom, and how many minutes after midnight the nearby Dunkin' Donuts puts plastic bags of unsold doughnuts in the Dumpster - clean bags, because the manager knows people here are hungry.

The camp also features checkpoints manned by sergeants-at-arms who inform trespassers that getting poked by an HIV-positive man with a needle is no easy problem to overcome.

That doesn't always stop neighborhood kids, though, who sometimes go wilding through the camp, punching out junkies.

In the mornings, day-trippers flock to the little village, many of them suburbanites who show up to use and run. Relaxed as an Acme shopper one recent afternoon, a white middle-aged woman injects her neck with product as she endlessly praises her Latino son-in-law - a "good man, a good father" - as a thick syrup of blood leaks from beneath her ear onto her chest.

The great bulk of narcotics buyers throughout Kensington and Fairhill are "Caucasians from the suburbs," said Capt. Michael Cram of the 25th Police District in Kensington. "You stand on the corner, and you see the white people come in, man, en masse."

In the camp, a massive pile of garbage sits at a main entrance behind garages near Second and Indiana Streets.The stink is overpowering.

Walk the main dirt path, pitched downward toward the railroad tracks, and what you see first is a stained and dented living-room end table, surrounded by three mismatched chairs. Empty packages of needles sit on top of the table. It looks as if a meeting had been quickly called, then adjourned after the needles were unwrapped and the topic of the day - the topic of every day - was discussed.

Nearby, a once-white teddy bear hangs twisting from a tree, the words "I love you" written in a red heart stitched to its chest.

Men and women sleep under tarps and plastic between pallets tied together with extension cords and wires that form rudimentary walls. Several people huddle under a Conrail bridge - the entire camp is sometimes referred to as "under the bridge" - or beneath scrawny weed trees that defy nature by living. One imagines their root systems nurtured by an aquifer of heroin that has bloomed from the drips and oozings of all those buried needles.

As awful as it is here, it's actually more appealing than many of the unregulated programs in recovery houses to which Puerto Rican addicts were sent via Air Bridge, said Juan Aponte, a Pentecostal minister from Kensington who sometimes hauls water and other necessities to people in the camp.

"They would rather eat trash by the tracks than be in those places," said Aponte, who likens Air Bridge to the Cuban boat lift in 1980, when Fidel Castro shipped people from jails and mental-health facilities to Miami.

"Except," Aponte added, "it's ministers who do Air Bridge using God's name."

At various times, the city has tried to fix this place. On Saturday, several agencies were to meet with Joanna Otero-Cruz, deputy managing director of community services, to hash out what needs to be done - a long list.

Change can't come soon enough, said Maria Gonzalez, president of HACE, a social-service agency in Frankford.

The camp "is a human dumping problem," she said. "And it's an environmental health issue we can no long allow to continue: there's contamination from the trains, there's human waste, possibly even human remains of people who died there that we never knew.

"And then there are all those needles."

What, she asked, can be done about all those needles?

alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969

@AlfredLubrano