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Eight months after Kensington’s disaster declaration, progress is tempered by the realities of the opioid crisis

The magnitude of the opioid epidemic here is so great that it can obscure even significant progress.

Every day Jorge Rosario, 52, a resident of the Kensington section Philadelphia cleans the sidewalk along the 2700 block of Kensington Ave., Philadelphia. This section of Philadelphia is considered the center of opioid drug use and the city and community are working to bring the crisis under control.
Every day Jorge Rosario, 52, a resident of the Kensington section Philadelphia cleans the sidewalk along the 2700 block of Kensington Ave., Philadelphia. This section of Philadelphia is considered the center of opioid drug use and the city and community are working to bring the crisis under control.Read moreANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer

In the eight months since Mayor Jim Kenney declared a disaster in Kensington — the Philadelphia neighborhood hit hardest by the worst urban opioid crisis in the country — the city has cleared four major homeless encampments, lowered barriers to addiction treatment, picked up tens of thousands of discarded needles, and opened dozens of shelter beds to house people in active addiction.

It’s arguably the most attention paid to this beleaguered neighborhood, long the epicenter of successive drug crises, in decades. But the magnitude of the opioid epidemic is so great that it can obscure even significant progress — a fact city officials acknowledged in a report released Tuesday on the Philadelphia Resilience Project, the set of initiatives that the city launched last October after declaring a disaster.

The blocks on and around Kensington Avenue are still overwhelmed with drug sales and open drug use. People in active addiction sleep on the sidewalks, and the El rumbles overhead with more people coming to the neighborhood to buy and use drugs. Police have recently begun to more aggressively stop people from injecting in public. And neighbors took city officials to task at community meetings this week, saying they still feel trapped by dealers and gun violence on their blocks.

City officials responded that they were committed to a long haul in Kensington; on Tuesday, Kenney extended the disaster declaration through the end of the year.

“I don’t think I’ve ever said we’re doing just fine, because we’re not,” said Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director, at a City Council hearing off Kensington Avenue Wednesday night. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we also recognize there’s a lot more to do. We’re not leaving Kensington, Harrowgate, and Fairhill. ... We are here to stay until we find a path forward."

There are encouraging signs of progress in Kensington, Abernathy said. Overdoses citywide are down by about 8 percent, and officials believe that they are also decreasing in the neighborhood, which has more overdoses than anywhere else in the city. Nonfatal overdoses are also down citywide.

In its report, the city said it had reduced the homeless population in Kensington by half; last summer, 703 people — most of the city’s homeless population — were living in the neighborhood. “While this shows serious progress made, it also means that there are still hundreds of people on the street [in Kensington],” the report read.

The city added 100 extra shelter beds in Kensington designated for people whose homelessness is linked to their opioid use, for a total of about 220 beds. Officials wrote that they plan to increase permanent supportive housing for people in addiction by 250 units each year.

Officials noted that Pathways to Housing, a permanent housing program for people in addiction that doesn’t require sobriety to enter, has had particular success: Of 122 people who stayed in the program for more than six months, 79 people, or 65 percent, were on addiction-treatment medications and another five people had abstained entirely from drugs.

The report also laid out efforts to remove trash and litter from the neighborhood: In seven major cleanups, workers — including nearly 1,000 volunteers — removed 376 tons of trash from the neighborhood and cleaned and sealed 120 vacant properties. A team dedicated entirely to removing hypodermic needles has picked up 19,375 syringes from the streets, and the city collected another 5,000 from drop boxes installed around the community.

Officials also launched a “safe corridors” program that stations volunteers along routes to six neighborhood schools to help students arrive safely. They are looking to expand it.

Still, Abernathy told neighbors on Wednesday night: “We have not succeeded in curbing open air drug dealing, drug use, and the shootings happening on a daily basis. We have to be more aggressive. We have to disrupt illegal activity. And if we can’t do that we are never going to be able to earn the trust of this community.”

Neighbors said they appreciated the new attention on their neighborhood — but that the city’s efforts haven’t been enough. Felix Torres-Colon, the executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, spoke on Wednesday night of the trauma of living in a neighborhood where residents dodge discarded needles, see people injecting drugs, and worry about shootings on their block.

“I’ve enjoyed the cleanups, and I enjoy the fact that [officials] like to sit and listen to us,” said Shannon Farrell, the head of the Harrowgate Civic Association, at Wednesday night’s meeting. “But nothing’s changing for anybody. The reason [drug use] is here is because it’s been contained here for years, and more has to be done.”

For people in active addiction, the city’s efforts were a mixed bag as well. Harry Calverley, 28, said he’d recently entered a methadone program with the help of Prevention Point, the local needle exchange, and believed the city had done what it could to help people into housing and treatment. “People drive by and will literally drive you to rehab right there. You can’t say there’s no one out here giving people a chance,” he said.

Some people in active addiction around the avenue said they had been subject to more aggressive policing lately; others said officers were more likely than not to wave away a person injecting drugs in public.

Deputy Police Commissioner Joe Sullivan told neighbors at Wednesday’s meeting that officers had been “too soft” on “unacceptable sidewalk behaviors — injection, defecation, urination” and have lately been warning people they will be arrested if they inject in public. First Deputy Managing Director Tumar Alexander said the city is also sending outreach workers with police to offer people treatment and has launched a diversion program for people charged with low-level drug offenses.

Talk of a supervised injection site, where people in addiction can use drugs under medical supervision and access treatment, and which advocates have said could cut down on public injections, was scarce at the meeting. “We haven’t backed away from overdose prevention,” Abernathy said afterward.

A woman named Tarya, who had been living around Kensington Avenue for the past three years, said aggressive policing can make people in active addiction ashamed and defensive: “When cops come off as judgmental, it deters people from wanting to get detox and help.”

Six months after the city evicted residents of the Emerald Street camp, she is set to enter permanent housing: “I got way too comfortable living under a bridge,” she said. “But I’m 21. My life isn’t over.”

In McPherson Square Park, where at the height of the overdose crisis two summers ago librarians reversed overdoses on the wide lawn, a group of women napped on cardboard mats. They were surprised, they said, that police had not yet told them to move along.

Down the lawn, the Resilience Project had set up a tent with 311 staffers, fielding complaints from neighbors. “It’s about presence and consistency,” said Daniel Ramos, a community engagement coordinator. “We have to show the community that we’re here.”

Along Kensington Avenue, people laid on mattresses or sat on milk crates and in folding chairs. On the sidewalk near the needle exchange, a young woman dipped her head to the ground, slipping in and out of consciousness. Outside the Somerset Avenue El stop, the sidewalk was crowded with people injecting heroin, or keeping an eye on friends who had just used.

A man who gave his name as Angel, who said he’d been sleeping on the streets for the last three weeks, swept trash from the sidewalk and winced as a mother walked three children down the avenue.

Stephen Whack leaned against a fence next to a vacant lot and watched the scene on the avenue. At 33, he’s has been drug-free and in a recovery house for the last eight months.

Whack said he was proud of his sobriety, and excited to reconnect with family he’d fallen out of touch with when he was living on the streets here. But it can be hard, he said, to go about daily life when you’re in recovery in a place like Kensington.

“The house I’m in is nice,” he said. “But as soon as I walk out the door, everywhere I look, someone has a crack pipe or a needle.”