Jason Meyer watched from his wheelchair as city personnel tried to clean up the chaos near Kensington and Allegheny avenues on Wednesday morning.
City workers arrived in the early hours to clear out two homeless encampments — the latest dustup in a years-long saga in Kensington — and try to get the roughly 50 people living there into housing or recovery services.
But Meyer, a 35-year-old who’s spent years bounding between rehab and the streets as he battles his addiction, said it felt like deja vu.
He once lived in the infamous Emerald Street encampment in Kensington, and saw how its closure in 2019 just shuffled people to other areas. Some people cleared from the street sought out permanent housing or treatment, he said but most of the population wouldn’t leave an area where they had easy access to drugs.
“There’s gotta be somewhere you could put your tent, a park, an area, some sort of designated spot,” Meyer said. “Or they’re just going to go to the back streets.”
Since Mayor Jim Kenney took office in 2015, encampment closures in the name of public health and safety have been a near constant in Kensington.
In 2017, officials moved to raze a large-scale encampment known as El Campamento that had long existed, hidden out of sight along the Conrail train tracks. Over the next two years, the city closed down four highly visible “tent cities” that grew along a series of underpasses. Emerald Street, Tulip Street, Kensington Avenue, Frankford Avenue — the city shut them down one by one, vowing improvement at every step of the way.
Since then, drug activity and homelessness has intensified in the shadow of the El between the Somerset and Allegheny stops on the Market-Frankford Line. The situation toward Allegheny Avenue grew even more intense after SEPTA briefly closed the Somerset El stop in January.
This area is the aortic valve of the region’s opioid crisis, where an estimated billion dollar drug trade draws thousands from all over the region into the post-industrial neighborhood.
Longtime neighborhood residents, business owners, and some elected officials have been pushing Mayor Kenney’s administration to fix the untenable living conditions — especially those brought by widespread homelessness. Last month, the city announced plans to clear out two of the larger encampments: one just north of K&A, the other about a mile south on Lehigh Avenue.
Most encampment residents had moved out from the former site before Wednesday morning. But about 15 people remained around 8 a.m., many shielding their faces from news cameras as outreach workers helped them fill plastic bins with their belongings. Personal items will be held in city storage for 30 days, officials said.
The city sees hope in this kind of intervention.
Eva Gladstein, Philadelphia’s deputy managing director for Health and Human Services, said outreach teams have helped more than 20 people connect with social services during the last month of engagement at the two targeted camps, plus an additional four people on Wednesday morning.
“When we can make the right connection for people, it’s really successful,” Gladstein said. “It doesn’t work the first or the second or the third or the fourth time for everybody, so we keep engaging for those that we can.”
Between the two encampments targeted on Wednesday, half a dozen other spots continue to grow. Kensington and Cambria. Kensington and Somerset. McPherson Square, the park at the heart of the neighborhood, is home to at least 80 to 100 people every night, said Bill McKinney, executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation who lives nearby.
In the absence of a larger plan, he was certain those encampments would grow in the coming weeks.
“Folks are going to migrate to wherever they can go,” McKinney said. “The whole city, it’s always a battle for space, and any open space is going to get filled.”
‘I’m out here too, and I think it’s insanity’
Official estimates vary as to how many people are living on Kensington’s streets. City housing officials say 300; police estimated over 650 people this summer. That’s anywhere from three to six times the mere 100 emergency shelter beds that were available in June, WHYY News reported.
Housing justice advocates have criticized the city’s treatment of encampment residents in both Kensington and Center City, alleging that officials fail to provide adequate long-term housing options after shutting down their living sites. Wednesday’s encampment closure was initially postponed due to a lawsuit filed on behalf of residents. The case was dropped in July.
Gladstein acknowledged the problem is too vast to contain with just targeted actions like the one Wednesday morning.
“We’re trying to make sure people are attaching to services rather than moving,” Gladstein said. “But this is an ongoing process. We have four outreach teams out in Kensington every day. This is not a one and done, and we’ll keep doing the work.”
When officials shut down the four bridge encampments between 2018 and 2019, Gladstein said 65% of people went into housing, and of those, more than half remain in housing today. City data supporting those numbers was not readily available. But Gladstein said many people remain “shelter resistant” for various reasons — and the number of emergency beds near Kensington where people actively use drugs is limited. Two emergency shelters closed along Kensington Avenue within the last year.
The situation feels like it’s at a breaking point for some. Neighborhood residents have raged against City Hall for years over the litany of woes — from drug dealing to missed trash collection. There is a common criticism that officials would never let this happen in whiter, more affluent parts of the city.
And public homelessness ranks high on the list of concerns.
On Wednesday, Steve, a 30-year-old fentanyl user who declined to give his last name, said he sympathized with the residents’ plight.
“You can’t walk down the sidewalk,” he said. “I’m out here too, and I think it’s fucking insanity. Overnight, people are getting stabbed. People are scared to take the train to work. They gotta do something about it, and this is coming from someone who’s homeless living on the street.”
Neighborhood leader: ‘This is a regional problem’
What sort of reprieve Wednesday’s action will offer neighbors and business owners remains unclear.
City Managing Director Tumar Alexander, who oversees the police response in Kensington, said there will be a “zero tolerance” policy for new encampments on the two targeted blocks. “We’ll probably have a detail stationed [there],” Alexander said.
As for other encampments nearby, he said the city will need to post additional notice before staging more evictions. Different tactics are required for each site, depending on whether it’s public or private property, he said. Officers will issue code violation notices and try to prevent new spots from forming.
Yet the city has promised zero tolerance for encampments before, and the crackdowns have not yielded a long term solution.
McKinney, of the New Kensington CDC, said the successful rehousing services touted by officials during these clearouts — 10 people here, 20 people there — are modest in the scope of the crisis.
“There still is no answer for the full number of people out here,” McKinney said. “As of right now, I don’t think anyone is confident that there’s any sort of larger plan that can account for each person.”
McKinney says the city could use regional support in creating a long-term solution for Kensington. The neighborhood has long been a catchment for people from the suburbs, Delaware and New Jersey who suffer from addiction, and yet the city has been left on its own to clean up the mess.
“This isn’t a Kensington problem,” he said. “This is a regional problem that Kensington is very graciously dealing with.”