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Across from Kensington restaurant Cantina La Martina, which was recently nominated for a James Beard Award, an encampment of makeshift shelters covers the sidewalk. They stretch out from the base of the Somerset El stop, where their numbers have been slowly growing since February.

For Cantina owners Dionicio Jiménez and Mariangeli Alicea Saez, the issue goes far beyond aesthetics, bringing a series of disruptions to the essential services on which their restaurant relies. 

“We don’t have the ability to do a normal forecast,” Saez told Billy Penn. “The situation outside affects our forecast, our operations, and our ability to staff people both in back and front of the house.”

Their main food supplier, the husband and wife team said, recently informed them deliveries would be discontinued due to its employees’ safety concerns. The couple now must factor in extra time and money for their daily procurements, split among at least five stops.

Last week, the restaurant was dropped by its fire alarm company, which cited similar concerns about employee safety; doubly worrisome, as tenants are living in the apartments above.

Commercial trash collecting services have also been interrupted, the restaurateurs said, for the same reasons.

The encampment, currently at seven tents plus a scattering of parasols and lawn chairs, is set to be removed by the city on Aug. 16.

For Jiménez and Saez, that seeming solution is part of the problem. They describe an endless shuffle of tents, evicted from one corner of Kensington Avenue to the next.

As a result of the continuing toll on their business — the restaurant had 20 cancellations last weekend alone, Saez said — the past few months saw the pair make a number of calls: to the police, to Philly 311, to District Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, and to night mayor Raheem Manning. Each acknowledged the issue and the scale of the problem, and some even showed up in person to do so. 

“But we still haven’t heard a sustainable solution,” Saez said, beyond another eviction that she and Jiménez agree would do little to address the issues plaguing a neighborhood that is the heart of a regional, billion-dollar opioid crisis. 

For Jiménez, the responses he’s gotten from city officials in particular — talk of protocol to be followed, staffing issues, and a shortage of resources — amount to little more than “excuses” that leave him frustrated. He cites the general neglect and lack of options available to residents as a main motivator in his decision to set up shop in the neighborhood in the first place.

It’s why the pair have decided to take a more vocal approach to the situation, with Saez recently reaching out to other local businesses to discuss what can be done.

“It’s important for us to be part of the solution of what happens to these people. Because moving them to the next block isn’t sustainable,” she said. “How do we involve professionals? How do we as a city, as a community, solve these problems for these people in a responsible way?”

Restaurateurs Dionicio Jiménez and Mariangeli Alicea Saez in front of Cantina La Martina, their James Beard Award-nominated Mexican spot in Kensington, where an encampment has taken over the sidewalk across the street. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

City protocol mandates notifying encampment residents prior to evictions — the advance notice period varies depending on how long the tents have been up — and there are signs posted around the site, some of which have been vandalized in protest. It also includes providing rehabilitation services and shelter for people who accept them.

But this does little, said the couple and other several neighborhood business owners who spoke with Billy Penn, to deter another encampment from soon sprouting elsewhere off Kensington Avenue, most frequently around the base of another El stop.

“You see how they live, and it’s not right for anyone, no matter [their] situation,” said Jiménez. “These are human beings that have a right to better treatment. But where are they going to go?”

Sunny Phanthavong is worried the soon-to-be-cleared encampment will simply reappear at the Huntingdon El stop, at the end of the block where her Vientiane Bistro stands, or perhaps in the alley behind it, which was taken over for the majority of last summer by a tent. That led to a two-week disruption in her bistro’s trash removal, until she came to an agreement with the tent’s occupant to “allow” collectors in.

Phanthavong and husband Kong Tieu have owned the Laotian and Thai BYOB — an offshoot of her parents’ West Philly bistro — for the past five years. Its Kensington Avenue location, the same neighborhood Tieu grew up in and where his family still lives, was selected partially out of a desire to “uplift” an unused storefront.

In her time on Kensington Avenue, she’s had frequent conversations with individuals seeking temporary shelter in one of the many abandoned buildings and storefronts on her block, which she describes as regularly strewn with needles.

“There are obvious mental issues that need to be addressed,” Phanthavong told Billy Penn. “People who need the help they’ve never gotten.”

Signs warn of a pending encampment eviction near the Somerset El stop. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

‘Band-aids’ instead of a lasting solution

Along the avenue and its side streets, there’s no shortage on an early weekday afternoon of booths and parked trucks sponsored by local charities, ministries, and Temple University providing a range of humanitarian services, from food distribution to HIV testing to shower stalls.

The efforts, while noble, are barely effective band-aids, Saez and Jiménez said, that fail to address the root problem and often perpetuate it. Containers from freely distributed food add to the litter on the streets, they noted, while offered services create a sense of normalcy contradicted by the inevitable evictions.

It’s why, Saez believes, the neighborhood’s issues “need to be addressed in a way much different than before.”

The encampment problem is not new. Closures of similar setups have been routine in Kensington since Mayor Jim Kenney took office in 2015. In 2021, City Managing Director Tumar Alexander, charged with overseeing police response in the neighborhood, announced a “zero-tolerance policy” on two recently-cleared sites on the avenue, plus a police presence to deter similar groupings on other corners known to attract them. 

Throughout a three-hour visit to the area, Billy Penn saw no evidence of police around the encampment outside Cantina La Martina, or any of the smaller ones scattered along the avenue. Remaining shreds of older eviction notices are still visible on walls and posts along the corridor, often above a new, growing cluster of occupied tents and foldout chairs.

The Kenney administration posted what’s called a 30-day “encampment resolution” notice on the 400 block of East Somerset Street on July 17, according to spokesperson Sarah Peterson, along with other notices on nearby blocks, “due to the increased number of tents and structures that pose public health hazards and obstruct passage on the sidewalk,” Peterson said.

Officials have also started the process for demolition of a vacant building about a block away from Cantina at 2837 Kensington Ave., Peterson said. She encouraged people to call 311 (or use the online form) to report concerns, and said the city works with and helps fund organizations in the neighborhood, including the New Kensington Community Development Corporation.

Both Cantina La Martina and Vientiane Bistro work regularly with the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, a community nonprofit that plays a key role in helping neighborhood businesses secure grants, find better terms for their loans, and raise marketing funds, among other forms of assistance.

“Encampment removal,” NKCDC Executive Director Bill McKinney, explained, “is part of the cycle of life up here.”

A resident of the neighborhood for over 20 years, McKinney said what’s needed is a collective, community-driven response, as opposed to an ineffective “displacement strategy.”

“When we’re talking about what’s going on in front of Cantina, this is not a Somerset and Kensington issue, this is a Philadelphia issue,” he said. “This is our responsibility as a city, and it is a regional issue. That is what has to be addressed, and no one has had the stomach to address it on that level.”

An encampment of people experiencing homelessness has been spreading out from the Somerset El stop in Kensington. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Part of the problem, he believes, comes from a city-wide willingness to shrug off an entire neighborhood.

“Everyone collectively agrees that they don’t want it where they are,” McKinney said. “So, [Kensington] is as good a place as any, which just so happens to be the poorest area of the city, with the greatest housing insecurity [and] Black and brown folks.”

It’s a sentiment Cantina La Martina’s Jiménez agrees with, adding that sidewalk-obstructing encampments that consistently force neighborhood residents and children to walk in the street would unlikely be tolerated elsewhere in the city.

It’s why the drive for change has to come from within the Kensington community, explained Nicole Westerman, NKCDC’s vice president of real estate and economic development. 

“Lots of folks have come to Kensington with their plans,” Westerman said. “The mayor, the DA, City Council members. Then they all move on to the next thing.” 

She points to Planning Kensington Together, an initiative led in collaboration with Impact Services that aims to reframe the conversation around the neighborhood’s priorities. Launched in 2021, the project brings together pivotal voices from the community–residents, organizers, small business owners–to discussions they had not previously been involved in with city officials and agencies, as well as harm reduction specialists.

“Until [the effort] is comprehensive and includes plans for both the residents who live here and the businesses who are working here and the folks who are here buying and using drugs, nothing will change,” Westerman said.

It’s an unprecedented grouping, led by participating residents’ shared vision, and “informed through the reality of the trauma that this community has experienced,” Executive Director McKinney explained.

“It’s still chaos,” he said of the ongoing discussions. “But now it’s chaos with an opportunity for change.”

The sidewalk across from Cantina La Martina in Kensington is filled with tents. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Paying the ‘Kensington Tax’

One of the things the initiative hopes to address is the stigma that business owners say comes with operating an establishment in the neighborhood.

Last year, well before the current encampment had formed outside its doors, Cantina La Martina was dropped by its insurance provider for being in an area deemed too “high-risk” to cover. A scramble for a new insurer yielded a single option who only agreed to provide coverage because of a mutual connection to the couple. They now pay almost three times as much in monthly fees.

“Any service you try to get here is more expensive than anywhere else,” Jiménez said.

Vientiane Bistro’s Phanthavong, who also pays “a huge chunk of [her] profits” to a high insurance premium, recalled an incident last month when the restaurant’s fridge broke down and the repairman who showed up to fix it at 9:30 a.m. decided to leave after a few minutes’ wait outside. “They said they felt unsafe, and weren’t interested in rescheduling,” Phanthavong said of the repairman who told her he had witnessed someone “shooting up” on the street. The result, she said, was a rush to save her inventory and navigate a domino-effect of delays while attempting to find someone who’d be willing to come out for the job.

Even the NKCDC is not immune. “What we went through to get a security company to just come out and install cameras for us is insane,” McKinney said.

“We call it the ‘Kensington Tax,’” Westerman said, of the higher cost of doing business that comes with being in the neighborhood.

The owner of Kensington Mini Market says he’s been denied services by vendors for years. (Ali Mohsen)

It’s a phenomenon Sennay Habtemicael has become well familiar with throughout the six years he’s owned Kensington Mini Market, on the avenue’s corner with East Huntingdon street.

“When I get drinks delivered, they charge me a delivery fee that my buddy in Northern Liberties doesn’t get,” Habtemicael said, “even though I’m closer to the wholesaler.”

Tastykakes are back on his shelves after a three-year absence only because he recently agreed to meet the delivery truck out on Aramingo Avenue. His store, he said, never qualifies for promotions from Herr’s or Lay’s, and some vendors, like Entenmann’s, Canada Dry, Amoroso, and Pretzel Factory, simply won’t deliver to him. He doesn’t get The Inquirer or the Daily News either. Coca-Cola, he claimed, “hasn’t shown up in two years; I’m not sure what that’s about.” Instead, he picks up his sodas from a smaller “mom and pop” supplier.

“We’re always paying more because we gotta go through a middleman,” he said.

The market’s location, across from the Huntingdon El station and bordering two abandoned lots, also makes encampments “an everyday problem.” He told Billy Penn he had spent that morning removing mattresses from in front of his store.

The clusters become more obstructive during the winter, he said, moving outwards from the side streets and adjacent lots to seek shelter under the elevated tracks right outside his store.

While appreciative of the NKCDC and its efforts — “they’re on the ground with us and understand the struggles” — Habtemicael isn’t sure more discussions are the way to go, regardless of who’s new to the table.

“I’ve been here long enough to realize what doesn’t work,” he said of the many outreach attempts he’s witnessed over the years. “They throw money at it, they throw bodies at it.” All, he said, to no avail.

Intead, he’d like to see a “huge, well-paying employer,” like Amazon, or a heavily-resourced local business step in to invest in the community’s latent workforce.

“The locals have nowhere to work and make a liveable wage,” Habtemicael said of the neighborhood. “That’s why there’s so much illegal activity. How else are you supposed to make money? And I mean locally, not having to drive to King of Prussia to work [for minimum wage].”

Until then, he expects to continue to see encampments moving up and down the avenue, from his corner and back.

“If they’re not my problem, that just means they’re someone else’s,” Habtemicael said of the current approach. “I mean, they gotta go somewhere.”

Correction: A previous version of this article described an incorrect advance notice period for tents or encampments in Philadelphia. Current city policy requires:

  • 30 days notice if the encampment has been set up 31 days or longer
  • 7 days notice if extant for 15-30 days
  • 72 hours notice for 8-14 days
  • 24 hours notice for 3-7 days
  • And no advance notice is required for some tents up less than 72 hours

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.