A masked worker enteres the lot next to Rock Ministries in Kensington, home to a new COVID-19 test site

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Under the roaring El tracks in Kensington, a coronavirus test site now offers walk-in service to people struggling with homelessness and drug addiction — two intractable problems in the neighborhood that have been further complicated by the pandemic.

The pop-up facility is a partnership between two neighborhood institutions along the Kensington Avenue corridor: Esperanza Health Center and Rock Ministries.

Dr. Maryann Salib, associate medical director of community health and wellness at Esperanza, says healthcare workers will offer walk-in testing for people showing symptoms as long as kits are available.

“We want to make sure that all individuals who are unsheltered or live in congregate settings have access to testing,” Salib said.

The site, housed in a white tent next to the Rock building, also offers public testing to healthcare and essential workers, people over 50, and people with chronic health conditions. Testing is also available for neighborhood residents who are showing symptoms.

Unlike most test sites in Philly, people with symptoms don’t need a referral from a medical provider — or even to make an appointment.

People who fit the target criteria need only show up Monday through Friday, from 2 to 4 p.m.

Home to an open-air drug market with few parallels across the country, Kensington has presented a challenge as the city tries to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Chased from bridge encampments, the homeless population has become more entrenched in the neighborhood’s residential core under Mayor Jim Kenney’s watch — and social distancing measures have been difficult to enforce.

“There are a lot of people still in the streets, some with masks, some without masks,” Salib said. “It’s concerning to see so many people still out and still in close contact.”

A worker unloads supplies for the coronavirus test site at Rock Ministries in Kensington Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Experts view expanded testing as one of the most instrumental tools for quelling the pandemic. There are currently 309 cases in the zip code that encompasses Kensington; 28% of all residents tested were found positive. But officials caution that much of the disease’s spread here has gone untracked to date.

Casey O’Donnell, president of the nonprofit Impact Services, says there’s a desperate need for testing among the neighborhood’s most at-risk — and for residents who have watched the neighborhood conditions deteriorate under the pandemic.

“It is beyond clear even based on the lack of physical distancing that this population is incredibly vulnerable,” O’Donnell said. “It also increases risk for the resident population.”

Noelle Foizen, director of the city’s Opioid Response Unit, said the Kenney administration has been searching for federally qualified health centers that could expand testing in the community. Few are able to adopt a walk-in model that serves people who are not registered patients, but Esperanza and the Rock had begun hatching their site plan before the city reached out.

Testing people who are unsheltered presents unique logistical issues, which Esperanza and the Rock Ministries anticipated prior to opening the site last week. Test results can take up to a week to return — and many of the target population are without addresses or phones.

“We have a tiered approach to this, as individuals are coming in, we get their phone number and if we don’t have their phone number, then we’ll get a close contact and make sure they come back for a followup appointment,” Salib said.

Staff will also disclose results to patients in-person at the tent site.

People who are homeless and have been diagnosed with COVID-19 may seek temporary shelter at the Holiday Inn quarantine site in Center City. City officials say they’re also working to set up other facilities for the population.

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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...