Under the El at Somerset Station in Kensington Credit: Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

Weeks after declaring “disaster” status in the Kensington area, city officials announced Thursday that they would be shuttering two of the opioid-ravaged neighborhood’s largest homeless camps.

Clearing the camps is the first phase of Mayor Jim Kenney’s new emergency plan to tackle the twin crises of addiction and homelessness that have centralized in the former industrial hub.

There are seven “missions” in this plan in total, which include trash collection and crime prevention as well. Dubbed the “Philadelphia Resilience Project,” the plan is very much focused on the Kensington and Fairhill neighborhoods, where at least 700 people — half of the city’s observable homeless population — now live on the streets, most of them suffering from drug addiction. It is “an unprecedented number,” the mayor said.

But the city’s track record with providing relief to Kensington has been spotty to date.

In the wake of national media attention on the neighborhood last year, the administration and railroad giant Conrail spent millions of dollars to close “El Campamento,” a sprawling camp along the Gurney Street rail lines that had existed for more than a decade. While outreach workers urged people into treatment, many ended simply relocating to underpasses between Lehigh Avenue and Somerset Streets.

Two of those newborn bridge camps were cleared out in the spring, and while the city has allocated emergency funds to expand low-barrier housing, it remains unclear whether shuttering the camps will improve rather than displace the problem at hand.

“Our city is now facing a crisis unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Kenney said on Thursday. “But I’m confident that this effort will allow us to come together, try new approaches, and demonstrate that resilience to improve these communities — and save lives.”

What we know

  • Of the two remaining bridge camps between Lehigh Avenue and Somerset Street, Frankford Avenue will be the first to shut down. Bridge residents have been given notice and will have to clear out no later than Nov. 15.
  • The Emerald Street bridge camp, which is the larger of the two, is expected to be closed by Jan. 15.
  • At least one-month notice will be given to camp residents and outreach workers will be on the ground daily trying to connect the population with housing and drug treatment services.
  • Two weeks ago, representatives from 35 city agencies began working out of a new satellite office: the Emergency Operations Center in the Philadelphia Fire Department headquarters on Spring Garden Street. The goal here is essentially to get decision makers in the opioid crisis response team working closer together — and closer to the most affected area, Kensington. (Northern Liberties is closer than Center City, anyway.)
  • Tumar Alexander, Kenney’s director of legislative and governmental affairs in the Managing Director’s Office, is point for the new project.

What we don’t know

  • The Resilience Project divides each of its seven missions into immediate, short and long-term Closing the Frankford and Emerald Street camps are just Phase 1. How the city will maintain its long-term goal — preventing other homeless camps from forming in Kensington and Fairhill — remains to be seen.
  • Numerous other encampments already exist in the neighborhood. Many of them are nestled in abandoned industrial sites and out-of-sight railroad trestles. As with El Campamento’s closure last year and the more recent closing of two Kensington bridge camps, outreach workers know that some homeless residents will not be open to treatment and housing options, opting to stay on the street. It’s unclear how far the city will go to criminalize homelessness in the name of enacting an overhaul in the neighborhood.
  • Advocates say the closure of one camp simply sends the homeless and addicted to look for other options in the neighborhood, whether it be vacant lots and abandoned houses.
  • Kensington is a large neighborhood whose boundaries change from person to person. It is unclear how the city will allocate resources and manpower across the district, especially when it comes to homeless camps. If camps migrate north to Harrowgate and Frankford, will the city still call its Kensington plan a success?

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...