Clearing out major encampments of opioid-addicted homeless people in the city’s Kensington section drew intense attention last spring — but the city faces far more difficult work in addressing housing and addiction.
“Closing the encampments was the easy part,” wrote a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, hired by the city to study the eviction of tent cities in the neighborhood at the heart of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis.
For one thing, they found that the often-repeated belief that most people sleeping on the street in Kensington are from out of town is untrue. More than eight in 10 people interviewed by the study authors before the encampment evictions either were Philadelphia natives or had lived in the city for more than a year.
A lack of shelter beds in the neighborhood — and residents’ resistance to adding them — hampered efforts to get people indoors, according to the study, which focused on the Kensington and Tulip Street encampments. It did not look at the more recent encampment clearings, at Emerald Street and Frankford Avenue, this winter.
The report also noted that while permanent residents and advocates were able to weigh in on the clearings, people who lived in the camps were almost “completely absent.” Two town hall meetings were held close to the encampments, to encourage camp residents to speak with officials; only one camp resident made it to a town hall, and two more meetings were canceled.
Once camps were cleared, people who refused offers of housing and drug treatment ended up sleeping rough elsewhere in the neighborhood — often in even more visible locations. And what positive effects the clearings had were tempered by the fact that hundreds more people began sleeping on Kensington’s streets last summer after the two encampments closed, the study found.
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district includes much of Kensington, called the report important.
“I’m grateful to the administration for making sure the process was documented in this way,” she said.
The finding that so many of the homeless were Philadelphia natives or had lived in the city for more than a year “was consistent with what we believe, but certainly not with the mythology of the neighborhood,” said Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director of health and human services.