Under the Kensington Avenue train bridge Monday morning, Michael Jones nudged his brother awake and pointed to the new signs emblazoned with the city seal.
“Notice: You must remove your property and leave this location as soon as possible, but by no later than Wednesday, May 30, 2018 at 10 a.m.”
The men last week joined the heroin encampments that line the streets off Lehigh Avenue. They are among the scores of people that have been swelling the camps as the weather gets warmer. Tents and furniture that were once clustered under the shelter of the bridge on Kensington Avenue now extend down the sidewalk, creeping ever closer to a block of rowhouses.
As new as they are, the brothers figured that they were on borrowed time. People who’ve been living rough here for months greeted with resignation the news just days ago that the city will clear two of the four drug encampments that have been plaguing the Kensington community, creating health hazards, and giving Philadelphia a national image problem.
“I guess you can’t really have this,” Jones said later that afternoon, sitting on a sagging couch someone had dragged onto the sidewalk as a woman sitting on the pavement injected heroin into a vein in her hand. “But I don’t know where all these people are going to go.”
The city has stressed that there will be places to go, that the people won’t just be pushed to another underpass. But for the permanent residents of Kensington, frustrated over how the encampments have grown along with the opioid epidemic, there is more skepticism than hope that the city will improve their community for good.
Liz Hersh, the director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, said that this time, the city is working to meet the specific needs of people in addiction by offering housing, treatment or just medical care, if that’s all they are willing to accept. The only requirement: Get out of the makeshift camps.
She says the office has learned from its experience last year at Gurney Street, where it helped clear a train gulch that had served as a camp for decades. Residents say that since that move, drug use that once took place in a relatively secluded ravine has been pushed onto the streets.
“There was an assumption [during the Gurney Street clearing] that what we had to offer people was treatment,” Hersh said. But the success of housing programs geared specifically toward people in addiction, which don’t require sobriety, has taught her office to start with “giving people what they choose.”
“For people who aren’t ready or wanting to have treatment, we have to start where people are,” she said.
Outreach workers will spend the month creating a list of people who live at two of the four camps, at Kensington Avenue and Tulip Street, and working to get them services. Two new shelters are opening in the neighborhood, with 40 beds apiece, specifically for the people on the list. In keeping with the success of housing programs that don’t require sobriety, these beds will be open to people who are still using drugs.
On May 30, police will start issuing citations for trespassing.
What happens then, Hersh says, depends on how well her office has done its job. She expects that some people will simply move to the two remaining camps, on Emerald Street and Frankford Avenue. City officials have opted against immediately clearing those camps because they want to focus their pilot program where they expect it is most likely to succeed.
Emerald Street is home to one of the city’s most entrenched drug markets, making it more difficult to shut down than camps where people only use drugs, not buy them.
Some advocates and residents said they were heartened by the city’s efforts. “I’m really pleased with the direction,” said Casey O’Donnell, the director of the civic development group IMPACT Services. “There’s agreement that people have to go somewhere and they have to figure out a way to move toward recovery and safety.”
Jamie Moffett, who runs the neighborhood group Kensington Renewal, said he was encouraged that the city was trying to house people now in the camps. “But we didn’t have four streets worth of encampments in December, we had one and the start of two,” he said. “The issue has worsened by 100 percent or more in the time the city hasn’t gotten their act together.” Charito Morales, a nurse and advocate who worked in the Gurney Street camp, said she’s skeptical the city has learned from previous cleanups.
City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who lives five blocks from the encampments, told Hersh at a budget hearing last month to act quickly, fearing that the encampments would swell as the weather warms. She said she was “hoping for the best but preparing for some challenges during the transition period.” She said she was concerned some would choose to remain outside because they “are on a binge.”
“What is going on there is not lawful and should not be permitted in people’s neighborhoods,” she said. “[The city] is going to have to figure out how far they’re willing to go to enforce the law.”
On Monday, people stirred awake in dome tents and on mattresses in the Kensington Avenue camp, as outreach workers from the city Office of Homeless Services picked their way past spent needles and shopping carts full of scrap.
“We can talk about some of your options,” one said, speaking to someone through a zipped tent flap. Two men in a pickup truck pulled up and dropped off a case of soda. Another outreach group came through with muffins and plates of scrambled eggs.
Salvatore Gonzalez emerged from his tent with a backpack full of needles to sell. His fiancée was still asleep. Originally from Camden, they’d been on the avenue for a month. They listened politely to the entreaties of outreach workers, but were still figuring out their next move.
“They say they’re going to try to open up a shelter,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t believe it, but whatever.”
Gonzalez’s fiancée echoed a concern that harm-reduction advocates have raised in the last week: For all the filth and danger, many residents of the camps believe that it’s a relatively safe place to use drugs, as Narcan is readily available to reverse an overdose.
“If we don’t have an increase in harm-reduction resources like a safe-injection site,” Brooke Feldman, an advocate and social worker, said Tuesday, “we’re sending people off to riskier use.”
On Monday, with the outreach workers gone, the camp resumed its normal rhythms. People swept the sidewalks, leaned back in office chairs, ripped open bags of heroin, and prepared tourniquets on mattresses strewn with donated clothes. And they talked about the fact that new arrivals, such as Jones and his brother, kept pouring in.
Down the block, Gonzalez paced with his needles. He sells them for $1 apiece, to fund an eight-month-old addiction. A woman in an SUV pulled up to the curb, jumped out, and asked for one. She looked put-together, Gonzalez noted, with impeccable makeup and sleek hair. He handed her a needle. She darted back into the car and pulled away.
“See her?” he said, shaking his head. “She’s going to be living down here in a month.”