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City workers clear two encampments on Kensington Avenue

The issue has proved challenging to reconcile, and critics say clearing encampments just moves the homeless from one location to another without addressing the underlying causes.

The City of Philadelphia, Police and social services are along Kensington Avenue near Willard Street on Wednesday morning August 18, 2021, clearing the streets of homeless in the center of the opioid epidemic in the city.
The City of Philadelphia, Police and social services are along Kensington Avenue near Willard Street on Wednesday morning August 18, 2021, clearing the streets of homeless in the center of the opioid epidemic in the city.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

City workers on Wednesday morning cleared out two encampments that have persisted for months along Kensington Avenue, relocating the more than two dozen people who lived there on the sidewalk in tents.

Beginning just before 8 a.m., outreach teams moved through the encampments, offering shelter space, connections to mental-health services, and assistance obtaining addiction treatment to those residents who remained.

Residents’ belongings were packed into plastic tubs and will be placed in storage. By 10:30, workers in neon vests hauled folding chairs, cushions, milk crates, suitcases, wooden barriers, shoes, and shelving into a garbage truck. Some picked hypodermic needles off the ground. Street sweepers moved in after to wash off the road and clear remaining debris.

The two encampments were more than a half-mile apart — one was near the intersection at Lehigh Avenue, the other at Allegheny. About 15 encampment residents had remained at the site at Allegheny Avenue on Wednesday morning, and even fewer near Lehigh. City officials said more than 20 people had already moved out, and at least four accepted housing Wednesday morning.

One man, Greg Ramseyer, 39, said he’d been living in a tent on the avenue since April. He has been battling addiction for 25 years, he said, and has been cleared out of various encampments over the years. This time, he refused to move, saying, “This is my home.”

Police and outreach workers said if he refused to leave, they’d toss his tent. Minutes later, they followed through and put it in a trash truck.

”We’ll get another one, we’ll re-set up and we’ll keep doing what we do until I find a way out of this addiction,” he said.

Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director for health and human services, said, “It’s obviously a difficult situation for the people who are living here.”

“We wish for them to be able to have adequate housing with three meals a day and the ability to shower and bathe and, if they choose to, be on a pathway toward recovery if they have substance use disorder,” she said. “For community members, it’s been very difficult for them in terms of the quality of life and the environment here.”

Activists, neighborhood-based civic organizations, and city officials disagree on the effectiveness of clearing out encampments of the homeless. The city has done so on a handful of occasions over the last three years in Kensington, Center City, and elsewhere, but housing justice advocates who support encampment residents say the city has failed to provide adequate long-term housing options.

Jackie, 34, is actively in addiction and lived at the encampment for a few weeks but left about a month ago to move into a temporary shelter. She returned Wednesday to help with the clearing.

“They needed to do this, they had to clean it up. You can’t have a bunch of people just out here living on the sidewalk,” she said. “But then again, they have to have somewhere for them to go. … They’ve been doing this for years. Now they’re just gonna move everybody back under the bridges.”

Some neighborhood residents are skeptical the clearing will keep encampments from sprouting up again elsewhere. Many of those living in tents — especially those in addiction who don’t consider living in a shelter or drug treatment facility an option — choose to leave before the city’s clearing process begins.

Malcolm Lewis, 34, has lived in Kensington for two years and runs a YouTube channel that raises awareness of the struggle of addiction in Kensington. He said he’s been in recovery for 13 years.

”So far so good,” he said when asked whether the city had treated people respectfully Wednesday. “But what’s the plan for these people? Are they gonna be just pushed off somewhere else, or are there gonna be resources?”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia keeps clearing homeless encampments. But who is being helped?

City officials concede there is no quick fix to solve the intersecting problems of poverty, homelessness, and opioid addiction that plague the neighborhood, which has for years been exposed to the city’s thriving drug economy and the relentless gun violence it fuels.

But they say they offer a “service-led” approach that prioritizes getting the homeless into housing. Gladstein said while police were on the scene Wednesday morning to secure a perimeter around the encampments, the process was led by outreach workers.

The Office of Homeless Services estimates that 250 to 300 people are living homeless in the neighborhood, while activists and police say that during the summer, it swells to more than 600.

The city posted notices in mid-July along Kensington Avenue warning encampment residents that tents, structures, and other possessions must be moved by Aug. 18.

That was after the process was stalled — the city had initially indicated a move-out would take place in mid-June. But a week before the deadline, Stephanie Sena, an antipoverty fellow at the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University, filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of encampment residents.

The city postponed the clearing, saying the homeless had removed their tents. Sena dropped the lawsuit in July.

Philadelphia officials developed what they call the “encampment resolution” process in 2017 after the city swept a massive encampment out of a Kensington railroad gulch. In little time, four smaller encampments popped up nearby.

Dennis Payne, a lifelong Kensington resident who has been in recovery for more than 35 years, said the city is wasting money clearing out the encampments and should direct more resources toward “a proper sheltering system.”

“Give it six months to a year and they’ll be here again,” he said. “This is a national problem, and it needs to be forced into the national level. If it doesn’t get there, we’ll be wasting money day after day, and the most scariest and terrible part is, how many more people are gonna die until we get a proper system?”