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Philadelphia’s last major drug encampment closes in bitter cold, but the opioid crisis persists

"Emerald City" is the most-entrenched encampment where people in addiction have been living for years. Access to drugs, and lifesaving Narcan, has made it hard for many to leave.

Terrance Thomas packs up his belongings from his place in the Emerald Street camp, Thursday in Kensington, Philadelphia. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Terrance Thomas packs up his belongings from his place in the Emerald Street camp, Thursday in Kensington, Philadelphia. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff PhotographerRead moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Eight months ago, Philadelphia officials announced they were going to clear four major homeless encampments in Kensington, a situation that made national news as a symbol of how overwhelming this city’s opioid crisis had become. Thursday, “Emerald City,” the most entrenched settlement, a hub also for drug sales and use, was swept aside.

The camp on Emerald Street and Lehigh Avenue, was a block-long cluster of tents, mattresses, and even the odd armchair. It had existed since at least spring of 2017, long before the other camps along Lehigh formed, and even before then had been known widely for drug sales.

City officials called it unsafe for its residents and the neighbors nearby: In addition to the recent frigid temperatures and the ongoing threat of contaminated drugs and poor sanitation, several people were shot and one person died of gunshot wounds there over the last year. Police responded to more than 3,000 incidents -- from overdoses to shots fired -- in the Emerald City area in the last four years, official records show.

But for many people in addiction, the camp, and others like it, was a safe haven, with friends armed with Narcan and ready to revive overdose victims.

For neighbors, the camps were the latest symptom of the official neglect that has long plagued Kensington -- and of what they criticized as the city’s piecemeal response to the nation’s worst urban drug crisis.

Clearing the camps became a centerpiece of the city’s effort to do better. “Encampment resolution" was among the major goals of Mayor Jim Kenney’s disaster declaration in Kensington, signed in October.

And though city officials said they’ve learned much since the first camps were cleared in May, they also acknowledged that evicting a few dozen tents will not solve the larger crisis in Philadelphia.

“We’ve made significant strides in the past year, but we have so much more to do,” said Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director, at a news conference Thursday. “The opioid crisis is not over. The challenges it’s created have not ceased.”

On Thursday, advocates, outreach workers, and police lined Emerald Street in the bitter cold, as the camp’s last few residents, some of whom had been living there for more than a year, packed their belongings in bins and ran through their remaining options.

Liz Hersh, the director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, said at the news conference that the encampment clearing plan had the potential to be a national model for other communities with similar problems.

But operations at Emerald Street on Thursday didn’t always run smoothly. The city has guaranteed a shelter spot to everyone who sleeps in the camp, and opened spaces in shelters just outside the neighborhood. But by Thursday, Kensington’s two shelters -- which do not require ID or sobriety to enter -- were nearly full, and about 10 people who remained in the camps refused to go anywhere else in the city.

That’s because the fear of painful withdrawal from the fentanyl-laced heroin sold here means many people in active addiction feel they need to stay close by their source.

By midmorning Thursday, with temperatures plummeting and outreach workers pleading with the last holdouts to consider entering any kind of shelter, Prevention Point, the local needle exchange that runs the Kensington shelters, was able to open up a few more beds.

Jose Benitez, the executive director of Prevention Point, said the shelters were operating slightly above capacity. The city’s self-imposed timeline for evicting Emerald Street residents meant that there weren’t enough resources to open a third shelter in the neighborhood, he said.

“We’re stretched — doing as much as we can,” he said. “We all wish we had more time, but it’s cold, and we needed to do it.”

Advocates said the encampment had been cleared too quickly, and worried that holdouts might move through the neighborhood, seeking shelter in abandoned houses, use drugs by themselves, and risk overdose and death. They noted that some smaller encampments have already started forming elsewhere in Kensington, so the efforts to help people will not end this week or anytime soon.

“They’ve been a community here -- they look out for one another. We’re worried about them scattering and dispersing," said Destinie Campanella, an advocate from South Philadelphia who visits the encampments regularly and came to Emerald Street on Thursday with a cake box full of Narcan, the overdose-reversing spray. She said she was worried about a friend in one of the tents, who had decided not to enter a shelter but had only vague plans to stay with a friend for the night.

“I’m feeling really emotional today,” she said.

Some held out until the last minute Thursday. Moments before the trash trucks rolled through to clear out people’s belongings, a man named Mike approached Tim Sheahan, the director of homeless services for the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and disAbility Services, and told him he was ready to enter treatment.

Sheahan, who had spent the last month cajoling him, beamed.

Down the block, another man who had been on Emerald Street for more than a year, was finally packing his belongings up, having decided the day before that he would enter a shelter. A third man, adamant that he would only enter a Kensington shelter, paced the block, smoking a cigarette. He wanted to go inside, he said, but he was also sick from withdrawal, and the early-morning eviction meant he had not been able to get another dose of fentanyl. Sheahan told him he would hold a shelter bed open until that evening, and the man rode off on his bike.

City officials said they were pleased with how many people had gone inside since the camps began to close in May: 44 percent of the residents at Kensington Avenue and Tulip Street, the first camps to close, and 47 percent of the Frankford Avenue camp residents, closed in November, had gone into treatment or shelter.

Only 28 percent of Emerald Street residents had accepted treatment or shelter as of Monday. But by Thursday afternoon, that tally was up to 64 percent — more than two dozen people had decided at last to come inside, officials said.

At Thursday’s news conference in the basement of McPherson Square Library -- itself the site of an encampment last summer -- Dante Jones, who lived in the Kensington Avenue encampment for months before it was dismantled last year, told reporters he was grateful to have gotten a home. Since then, he’s thrown himself into outreach, handing out Narcan and care packages on the avenue where he once slept.

But, he said, getting inside was only a first step for people in addiction.

“When you get a house, you have to deal with your other issues,” he said. "And when you’re separated from the things you know, it’s hard. That roof, that quiet, is loud.”