Philadelphia shares plan to clear Kensington's heroin encampments

Richard Duncan, left, and a friend talk about their struggles with drug addiction and their living conditions under a bridge at Frankford and Lehigh avenue at the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia. Thursday, January 4, 2018.

Philadelphia officials on Thursday announced a plan to clear two of the heroin encampments on Lehigh Avenue in Kensington, where people in addiction have been living since a longtime encampment in a nearby train gulch was cleared last summer.

City officials say they’ll engage in “intensive, daily outreach” to the people in the camps, but will also post warnings that they have 30 days to leave the sidewalks. After that, police will clear the camps.

“We’re giving them the opportunity to get off the street and get the help they need by addressing many of the barriers that are usually a deterrent to getting services like the lack of ID’s, lack of transportation and guaranteeing immediate access to treatment,” Liz Hersh, the director of the office of homeless services, said in a news release. “But the clock is ticking.”

Officials estimate there are about 200 people living in four encampments under train bridges on Lehigh Avenue, and their numbers are growing as the weather gets warmer. When the program would start, or which area would first be targeted was not stated, however.

Since last fall, people in addiction have been sleeping in dome tents, on mattresses and in makeshift shelters on the sidewalks off Lehigh Avenue. They gathered there after the city closed a similar camp in the Gurney Street train gulch, known as El Campamento, which had been there for decades.  Conrail, which owns the land, cleaned the camp as part of an agreement with the city in August.

This week, Conrail announced $500,000 in grants to two community organizations in Kensington — for a new public walkway, new landscaping in a five-block stretch around the tracks, and outreach for residents traumatized by the drug epidemic.

Outreach workers visit the camps almost daily, offering food, clothing, and medical care. But with addiction this entrenched, and housing in the neighborhood scarce, it has been tough to get people into shelter. Through the winter, denizens of the camps endured freezing, often life-threatening conditions. Though the city does have shelters, they are far from Kensington and access to drugs that people need to stave off the pain and nausea of withdrawal.

For months, permanent residents of the community have raised concerns about the camps. They’ve told city officials of walking their children past people openly injecting drugs, and having to dodge discarded needles on the streets.

The city plan starts with drawing up a list of everyone living under the bridges. Then, the next month will be spent getting people into housing and drug treatment. The city will park a mobile unit at the sites to provide medical care and “immediate transportation to services,” and add 40 shelter beds in the neighborhood. Another 40-bed shelter is opening in the neighborhood as well; the plan is to get everyone into some kind of facility, whether or not it’s in Kensington.

Anyone who remains after the month of outreach is up could receive citations for trespassing and obstructing the right-of-way, Hersh said, but added that people living in the camps have generally cooperated with police in the past.

After the camp is cleared, personal items left behind will be removed and stored for another month in case their owners want to claim them.

The city has been alluding to the plan for several months at community meetings, and Hersh said in an interview last month that her office had been inspired by a similar “encampment resolution” method pioneered by officials in San Francisco.