Clearing out major encampments of opioid-addicted homeless people in the city’s Kensington section drew intense attention last spring — but the city faces far more difficult work in addressing housing and addiction.
“Closing the encampments was the easy part,” wrote a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, hired by the city to study the eviction of tent cities in the neighborhood at the heart of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis.
For one thing, they found that the often-repeated belief that most people sleeping on the street in Kensington are from out of town is untrue. More than eight in 10 people interviewed by the study authors before the encampment evictions either were Philadelphia natives or had lived in the city for more than a year.
A lack of shelter beds in the neighborhood — and residents’ resistance to adding them — hampered efforts to get people indoors, according to the study, which focused on the Kensington and Tulip Street encampments. It did not look at the more recent encampment clearings, at Emerald Street and Frankford Avenue, this winter.
The report also noted that while permanent residents and advocates were able to weigh in on the clearings, people who lived in the camps were almost “completely absent.” Two town hall meetings were held close to the encampments, to encourage camp residents to speak with officials; only one camp resident made it to a town hall, and two more meetings were canceled.
Once camps were cleared, people who refused offers of housing and drug treatment ended up sleeping rough elsewhere in the neighborhood — often in even more visible locations. And what positive effects the clearings had were tempered by the fact that hundreds more people began sleeping on Kensington’s streets last summer after the two encampments closed, the study found.
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district includes much of Kensington, called the report important.
“I’m grateful to the administration for making sure the process was documented in this way,” she said.
The finding that so many of the homeless were Philadelphia natives or had lived in the city for more than a year “was consistent with what we believe, but certainly not with the mythology of the neighborhood,” said Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director of health and human services.
Quiñones-Sánchez said she believed some of the people the survey counted as residents of Philadelphia had obtained city addresses because they had received services through city agencies, and added that Philadelphia natives should be encouraged to return to their families. She said, though, that the city has a responsibility to care for everyone in need, regardless of whether they are from Philadelphia.
In a positive finding, the study authors wrote that clearing the encampments improved the city’s approach to helping people with addiction. Community Behavioral Health, the city agency that handles residents’ Medicaid-funded care, changed some policies to get people into treatment more quickly — including removing requirements for identification that kept many people who have no possessions from getting care, Gladstein said.
The study suggested that some camp residents balked at some shelter options that were too far from Kensington and the drug supply that kept them out of withdrawal. But Gladstein said that some city shelters outside the neighborhood slowly filled up as the year wore on, and the city opened several other low-barrier shelters that were closer to Kensington.
Quiñones-Sánchez said that residents were wary of adding more shelters because they’re tired of Kensington’s status as a neighborhood where drug use is routine — and of the decades of neglect that allowed such activities to become commonplace.
“This notion that folks in addiction don’t walk more than 10 blocks [for services], and therefore we have to put everything 10 blocks from where we’ve made a policy decision to allow open-air [drug] markets, is not acceptable to me,” she said. “We know the open-air markets, we know where they are, and we won’t take them over and reclaim them.”
It’s hard to measure the success of the eviction, the study authors wrote, especially since the city did not specify what success might look like. Still, study authors wrote, by June 1, 2018, the day after the first encampments were cleared, 55.5 percent of the 110 camp residents for whom the city had reserved temporary housing slots were sheltered. By the end of the month, that list had expanded to 192 people who had engaged with outreach workers and were interested in housing or treatment, and 47.2 percent of them were still in housing.
By October, of the 189 people remaining on the list (some names had been erroneously duplicated), 19 percent were in long-term placement or permanent housing and 10 percent were still staying in the temporary shelters on Kensington Avenue or in inpatient addiction treatment.
Two people on the list had died by October; 10 were in prison, and nearly 41 percent of people on the list were accessing some kind of city services, but weren’t housed. Forty-five people were never seen by outreach workers after the encampment clearing.
The study authors wrote that creating that list of names was crucial to staying engaged with people in the camps.
“Six months after the encampments were cleared, [the list] was instrumental in enabling outreach staff and caseworkers to maintain ongoing contact with 62 percent of the target population, and engaging 41 percent with housing or substance-use treatment services,” the authors wrote.
Still, Gladstein said, the aftermath of the Kensington and Tulip clearings underscored the need for a more comprehensive approach. In October, Mayor Jim Kenney declared a disaster in the neighborhood in an effort to get city agencies to collaborate on addressing public health and safety concerns in Kensington.
Clearing the encampments “called out the need for the Resilience Project,” the city’s name for the disaster declaration, Gladstein said. “We thought we had a good plan, and we were able to resolve the encampments by serving people. But there’s a need for an even heightened city and community level of presence and coordination.”