Ground zero of Philadelphia's raging heroin and opioid epidemic sits along a half-mile, trash-strewn gorge divided by a Conrail line that slices through Kensington and Fairhill. At any given time, the area is home to 75 to 125 heroin addicts who come to shoot up, live, sleep, and die.
It's a human wasteland just four miles from Center City.
The Drug Enforcement Agency considers the area sometimes called El Campamento home to one of the largest heroin markets on the East Coast. Despite periodic efforts to clean it up, the outdoor narcotics den has been allowed to operate for three decades.
Sadly, it has been easy to ignore because the area is tucked away down an embankment that is out of sight and out of mind from the rest of the city, as staff writers Stephanie Farr and Sam Wood recently detailed in an article and video, "A Hidden Hellscape," that can be found on Philly.com.
But as the heroin epidemic has exploded in Philadelphia - as well as across much of the state and country - the human wasteland along the railroad tracks has become hard not to notice. Some of its residents were among the more than 900 people who died from overdoses in Philadelphia in 2016, a 30 percent increase from the year before.
Overdose deaths were triple the number of murders in the city. Even more alarming, the number of overdoses in this city of 1.5 million was roughly the same as the overdoses in New York City, population 8.4 million.
City officials and Conrail periodically clean up the area along the railroad tracks. An estimated 500,000 used syringes litter the site, along with piles of garbage, tires, worn mattresses, and makeshift encampments.
The city wants Conrail to pay to bulldoze and erect a fence around the five blocks. The cost is estimated to be between $3 million and $5 million. As the property owner, Conrail has a certain responsibility. But the city is also partly to blame for letting the problem fester for decades in plain sight.
Just cleaning up the area is hardly a cure-all. Indeed, millions of dollars have been spent on past cleanup efforts to no avail. Even if the area is fenced off, the heroin addicts will likely cut holes to get past it or go elsewhere. Officials agree that just arresting the addicts will not solve the problem.
What is needed is a more comprehensive strategy that includes outreach, treatment, and counseling. But that is easier said than done. The estimated 30,000 heroin addicts in the city is double the number of treatment slots available. And the city - which is also a magnet for addicts from the suburbs and other states - can't force anyone into treatment.
Mayor Kenney, who convened a 16-member task force of health and law officials last month, says the city must do more but that there is no simple solution. "It's going to take many years and a ton of money, so that may have been why it hasn't been addressed in the past," Kenney said. "But that's not an excuse." It's good to hear him say that.
Heroin is not just a Philadelphia problem. State and federal officials as well as other stakeholders must join hands to develop plans to confront all opioid addictions. This is a crisis that can no longer be ignored.