Signs posted by the city under the El; Encampment 'residents' Melissa and Tom

At the end of April, the City of Philadelphia announced it was launching a new effort to clean up the encampments in Kensington where many drug users make their homes.

The plan includes outreach to those affected, but many users living under the Tulip Street bridge said on a recent afternoon that they had not noticed the orange signs screwed into the sturdy posts of the El.

The signs, written in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, warn that “no person shall use this location to sit, stand, lie, or otherwise use the public sidewalk, in such a manner as to unreasonably or significantly block or obstruct the free passage of pedestrians”  —  and that all property needs to be removed by no later than 10 a.m. on May 30.

“This is the first I’m hearing about it,” said a woman named Melissa, sitting in a tent across from the signs. She only wanted to use her first name. “I’m kind of disappointed. What do they expect these people to do?”

A ‘threat’ to health and safety

According to the city, the effort to clear the encampments  —  first the ones on Kensington Avenue under the El and under the Tulip Street bridge  —  is the result of careful planning in conjunction with housing and treatment experts, and is intended to strengthen Philadelphia’s response to the opioid crisis.

More than 1,200 people died from drug overdoses in Philadelphia County last year, and the epidemic has had a growing impact on homelessness. The encampments pose a health and safety threat to those who stay there and to the nearby neighbors, according to Philly Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis.

However, many under the bridges say they are trying to live as quietly as possible as they struggle to survive  —  and that they have no idea what they’ll do when the encampments close.

To address some of those concerns, city outreach workers are hitting the streets daily, trying to develop a list of those living under the bridges and assessing individual needs to connect homeless users with services, including respite and treatment. Anywhere from six to 10 workers are doing outreach every day, according to city spokesperson Alicia Taylor.

Prevention Point’s tent will be set up twice a week Credit: Courtenay Harris Bond

At the edge of the Kensington Avenue encampment under the El, workers from Prevention Point Philadelphia  —  one of the largest needle exchanges in the country that also offers clients medication-assisted treatment, medical care and other services  —  had set up a tent, just as they do every Tuesday. These pop-ups are now expanding to Thursday, partly in response to the city’s recent efforts. During this street outreach, people can connect to treatment and other services. A nurse practitioner is there for wound care, HIV and Hepatitis C testing and case management.

“This is a unique approach that brings a suite of services to the individuals living under the bridges,” said Liz Hersh, director of the Office of Homeless Services.

“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 I.D.s, lack of transportation and guaranteeing immediate access to treatment  —  but the clock is ticking.”

Nowhere else to go

This time pressure to figure out a plan is especially hard for people like Melissa and her boyfriend Tom, who have been homeless for almost a year and who said they were paying someone to take care of their baby. They were ousted from the house they were renting from a slumlord when the city condemned it, sending them onto the street after they wore out their welcome at friends’ and neighbors’.

“This street is actually really nice and really clean,” Melissa said. “The people are very well behaved.”

Tom said he thought the nearby neighbors in Port Richmond were worried that flocks of homeless users would start to move under more bridges  —  creeping closer and closer to this gentrified neighborhood. In the meantime, he said he and Melissa had no plan.

“Where’s everybody going to go?” Tom asked. “I just don’t know.”

One option the city is presenting is a new 40-bed shelter at 3249 Kensington Avenue that opened this week. It is solely for people who have been living under the Tulip Street bridge and for those in the encampment on Kensington Avenue, according to Taylor.

The city’s new shelter with beds for people displaced by this effort Credit: Courtenay Harris Bond

A former user, Bill, and his wife, Amy, an out-of-work nurse, sat in a red truck outside the shelter. They were hoping to be admitted. They had been victims of identity theft “and a lot of other issues,” Amy said, adding that “being out here alone can make you use.”

“I have a past like anybody else down here,” said Bill, his arms and chest covered in tattoos. “These streets are rough. They’ll eat you up alive.”

First the railroad tracks, now the bridges

Christopher Drescher, who lives at Tulip Street and uses cocaine, heroin and fentanyl, said that the problem was that the surrounding neighborhood was “nice.”

“They kicked us out of the railroad tracks,” Drescher said, citing the closing of El Campamento, a drug encampment along the Conrail railroad in Kensington and Fairhill, last summer. “So we inhabited the bridges. Now they’re kicking us out of the bridges. Where the hell can I sleep? I have to go to a shelter? I don’t want to go to a shelter.”

Drescher, 40, said he believes shelters were filled with “criminal activity,” adding that the last time he slept in one, someone stole his bag, which contained all his identification papers.

“Now I’m stuck out here,” Drescher said. “Not only am I a three time convicted felon that’s homeless, I don’t have ID. I have no phone number. No address. How am I supposed to fill out an application? I can’t put any of that stuff on an application.”

A few tents down, Sara, 23, who only wanted to use her first name, said that she felt like the outreach workers who visited the encampment were “just trying to force treatment on people. When you want to get clean, it has to be on your own terms.” She said she wasn’t yet ready to get help.

Some of the new housing intended to help those affected by this clearing effort uses the harm-reduction model — i.e. people aren’t required to stop using drugs before being placed in an apartment.

That’s the case for the Housing First services at Pathways to Housing. Per Pathways clinical director Matt Tice, his organization is currently finalizing plans with Department of Behavioral Health and the Office of Homeless Services to expand the amounts of beds it makes available.

James, 39, who sat in a tent under Tulip street, said he was hoping to enter a rehab program Monday if everything worked out. An outreach worker was helping him, he said.

“If I have to be on the street, this is alright,” James said. “But you don’t want to get comfortable and think you don’t have to leave, you know what I mean?”