The men's recovery housing unit at Last Stop Sobriety

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Philly is going to provide addiction treatment resources for the homeless people currently living near the Conrail tracks in Fairhill when cleanup begins later this month, the city tells Billy Penn.

The cleanup of the Conrail site at Gurney Street— an area of the city notorious for homelessness and heroin use — is slated to begin before July 31. In partnership with the city, Conrail will clean the train tracks of needles, vegetation and trash, and then pave over and fence off the area. The cleanup is part of a larger effort to prevent drug use in the area.

The cleanup will displace anywhere from 34 to 78 homeless people with addiction living around Gurney Street. But city spokesperson Ajeenah Amir said the city hasn’t forgotten about them.

In advance of the Gurney Street cleanup, the city has partnered with various addiction recovery services in Kensington, including Kensington Hospital, the harm reduction nonprofit Prevention Point and various Homelessness Outreach Teams in Philly.

[pullquote content=”There’s a process here, and the process, if it’s not done correctly, they’ll make their way back to Gurney Street or they’ll find another street.” align=”right” credit=”Fred Way, executive director of the Pennsylvania Alliance of Recovery Residences” /]

Beginning July 30, Amir said the city will park an intake trailer along Gurney Street to assess people living there for addiction treatment and housing.

“We are committed to making drug treatment available to anyone who is willing to accept it,” Amir wrote in an email. “Throughout the duration of the cleanup, outreach workers will be on site, engaging with those living or using around the property to encourage them to accept treatment.”

Here’s what else the city is going to do for the people living at Gurney Street:

  • Increase the Supportive Housing Budget by $250,000 to open 55 beds in Philly rapid rehousing units
  • Open three inpatient treatment slots at North Philadelphia Health System until noon each day for 30 days — beginning as soon as July 24
  • Expand the city’s 17 recovery houses from 300 to 333 beds
  • Extend hours of some residential recovery programs to take individuals in after 5 p.m. and on the weekends
  • Increase the capacity of halfway houses
  • Encourage halfway houses to accept more “specialty populations” — like women with children and people of color

How we got here

Drug use along the railroad at Gurney Street is a decades-old problem — it began around 1976, when Conrail’s use of the tracks took a sharp decline. Today, only a few trains still run, leaving the tracks open to homelessness and drug use.

This year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration declared the site the biggest open-air drug market on the east coast. It got so bad that the railroad attracted international attention, from news outlets like the BBC and even TV talk show host Dr. Oz.

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The city and Conrail debated whose responsibility it was to clean up the tracks and solve the growing drug use problem for years. Last month, they ended seven months of negotiations and struck a deal to clean up the area: Conrail would pay for the cleanup, and Philly would assign more police officers and resources to the area.

Beginning the recovery process

Fred Way, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Alliance of Recovery Residences, said the most important part of this outreach is the assessment of people with addiction for the appropriate next — or first — steps in their treatment.

“The whole assessment of them is key,” Way said. “You put someone who needs detox in a recovery house, then guess what? He or she ain’t gonna stay, because they’re going to start going through withdrawal and a recovery house can’t handle that because they’re not a medical facility.”

“There’s a process here, and the process, if it’s not done correctly, they’ll make their way back to Gurney Street or they’ll find another street,” Way added.

Once outreach begins, Way said representatives from PARR will work along the tracks to help people understand the process of entering certified recovery housing.

“We need to see what we can do to help these individuals,” Way said. “Most of the people coming off Gurney Street, they wouldn’t know, so they would need someone to guide them.”

Jose Benitez, the executive director of Prevention Point, operates a homeless shelter for people with addiction in Kensington. In partnership with the city, he said he will provide 23 beds for people from the Gurney Street area once construction begins.

“We’re trying to let people know that if they want services, if they want to access services, they can do that,” Benitez said.

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‘This is a 30-year problem’

Chris Marshall, the executive director of a sober housing unit called Last Stop Sobriety, used to live along the train tracks. Not at Gurney Street, but at Second and Indiana, where he spent the height of his addiction. Marshall entered his recovery in 2012, and since then he’s been committed to providing sober housing for people in Kensington.

Last Stop Sobriety has a men’s unit with 13 beds and a women’s unit with nine beds. Technically the rent is $100 per week, but Marshall refuses to turn anyone away if they want housing — he often allows people in recovery to sleep on the floor if they need to.

“You don’t even have to tell us your real name to come here,” Marshall said. “I just want to help as many people as I can. That’s it.”

Marshall is optimistic about the city’s efforts in the Gurney Street cleanup, but he’s worried that many people living near the tracks won’t accept treatment. It took a few wake-up calls for Marshall to leave the tracks and enter recovery — including prison time and an intervention from friends and family.

“They’re working as a big community there,” Marshall said. “It’s kind of enabling them. I would love to see people come together like that for something like what we’re doing, for sobriety. It’s like anything — Gurney Street, living under the train tracks, they have all these little micro-communities, and things get done and it’s comfortable.”

What advice would Marshall give to the people living on Gurney Street?

“I don’t know what the right answer is,” Marshall said. “I just know I want to be available to figure it out. Come over here. I’ll show you what worked for me, and hopefully it’ll work for you.”

“This is a 30-year problem,” Benitez said. “It is not a problem that bounced up overnight. I caution everybody that we’re not going to solve it in one year. It’s going to take a little while. It’s going to take some sustained resources and also allowing our folks to get access to services if they need that, consistently and in the next few years.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...