Commentary: Philly must find will to tackle drug crisis

Addict Victor Alvarado (right) with Juan and Jaqueline Aponte of the Latino Partnership in Kensington. Alvarado, 49, has lived in "El Campamento" on and off for more than 20 years.

Air Bridge, the Puerto Rico to Philadelphia escape route for addicts, is part of an evolving and complex problem facing eastern North Philadelphia.

A national survey by the Drug Enforcement Administration last year paints a grim picture for Philadelphia, showing that the availability of heroin and widely abused prescription drugs is increasing. Kensington is ground zero for this crisis. It is a place where many individuals who have become addicted after suffering trauma, or as a result of overprescription of opioid medication for pain management, are drawn from near and far to the market for the purest, cheapest heroin in America.

As stakeholders working on the ground every day to address homelessness, housing needs, and health and family issues, we have seen the problem exacerbated by the failure of a comprehensive policy at the federal, state, and local levels.

City Council budget and town hall hearings have highlighted the need for a more proactive approach by our government. Air Bridge and Puerto Rico's role in human trafficking of addicts coming here as a last resort, coupled with the suburban connections that bring hundreds of addicts daily to Kensington, have created the perfect storm. It's a poor Puerto Rican community held hostage by the market created by drug dealers that come from all over the city to cater to both Puerto Ricans sent by Air Bridge and, mostly, suburban white folks.

In the last decade, many groups have attempted to address the problem. This spring, under Mayor Kenney's new administration, an interdepartmental task force was created to tackle this issue, led by Councilwoman Quiñones Sánchez, Councilman Allan Domb, and the Managing Director's Office.

The Department of Licenses and Inspections has demolished many buildings in the area, and it has cleaned and in many cases resealed vacant properties. The Streets Department has installed LED lighting in and around the "Encampment," where many addicts live, and the city's Community Life Improvement Programs has been out trying to keep the area clean.

These efforts deal with the aesthetics of the problem, and are essential to restoring positive quality of life for neighborhood residents. Other steps include increased support to quantify the area's homelessness problem from the Office of Supportive Housing, and the Department of Behavioral Health has financially supported the new offices of Prevention Point, which does invaluable work in the day-to-day management of this crisis. Still, this is not enough.

In a budget hearing on April 7, 2010, Quiñones Sánchez asked the administration to require site visits by providers, who had multiple persons at an address, to better manage the bad recovery houses. While the administration agreed it would request it, no data on site visits has been shared with Council. The Inquirer reports that recovery houses are being paid by providers is unacceptable.

In the meantime, delegations from the District Attorney's Office and the Managing Director's Office have toured the encampment with Conrail, and the city has taken steps to declare it a "public health" crisis.

Over the last year, a diverse group of stakeholders has been meeting, including Prevention Point, Impact Services Corp., New Kensington Community Development Corp., the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises, Councilmen Domb and Mark Squilla, and the Managing Director's Office, and together we have drafted a comprehensive plan to deal with the short-term issues of transitioning the addicts from the area and a framework for long-term solutions that addresses the rapidly growing opioid crisis in Philadelphia.

The plan developed by the Kensington Counts Coalition delineates a process of outreach, intervention, and stabilization in a trauma-informed, culturally competent, and respectful manner. To put this plan into action, we need federal, state and local resources NOW.

Incremental steps will not make a dent on this complex problem - we need fully coordinated and resourced action, uniting our efforts across these sectors.

We know the problem. We have committed stakeholders ready to amplify the work. We need the political will to get us to action.

Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones Sánchez represents the Seventh District. maria.q.sanchez@phila.gov

Casey O'Donnell is president and CEO of Impact Services Corp. codonnell@impactservices.org