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Newall: When will someone clean up Philly's heroin camp?

We know about heroin and Philadelphia. We look away when we can, from strung-out suburban kids panhandling on Center City streets, from addicts nodding off on the El.

We know about heroin and Philadelphia. We look away when we can, from strung-out suburban kids panhandling on Center City streets, from addicts nodding off on the El.

In Kensington - a neighborhood plagued by the nation's purest heroin and deep poverty - heroin is impossible to ignore. But too often our city has looked away.

Sunday, in a deeply reported and powerful article, my colleague Alfred Lubrano took us to the heart of Philadelphia's crisis. He told us how for decades, to clear their streets, mayors, pastors, and police in Puerto Rico have been shipping heroin addicts to Philly - to Kensington and Frankford - peddling tales of recovery resorts decked out with horse stables, pools, and basketball courts.

"Go to jail or go to Philadelphia," they were told.

So they came. One-way tickets to Philly. Sometimes, on the last of their family's savings. Always, with a snowball's chance in hell at recovery.

Because that's what awaited them here: hell. No recovery palaces and horses, of course. Often, just crumbling, unregulated recovery houses operated by con men. Instead of treatment, many men got mattresses in crowded rowhouses and little else. Many were robbed of everything, with operators stealing their food stamps and confiscating their IDs.

Some of the operators also sought kickbacks - sometimes as high as $500 - for ferrying men to drug treatment centers, Lubrano reported. When there was nothing left to steal, the addicts were shown the door.

And here they are: torn from their families, penniless, alone, and addicted in a Land of Heroin. Not a death sentence. But not far from it either. And our problem now.

The practice - this flow of addicted humanity from Puerto Rico to cities like Philly, Chicago, New York - is known as "Air Bridge," Lubrano reported. Others just call it what it is: human trafficking.

It's hidden enough that the Philly offices of the FBI, DEA, and the District Attorney's Office all told Lubrano they didn't know much about it. They need to start learning.

William Stauffer, who heads up a state task force investigating recovery house regulation, had thought the Air Bridge was nothing more than an "Urban Legend."

Way to be on the ball, Will.

One person who has long been fighting to make people aware is Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. She went to Puerto Rico this summer to confront officials there. For years, she's been calling for the city to turn its attention to the place where so many of the island's addicts wind up: a tent city along the Conrail railroad tracks in Fairhill.

"El Campamento," the men call it.

I first wrote about the camp last year. It is a place of suffering. As many as 100 men live there and hundreds more shuffle through daily - from across the city and the suburbs - to shoot heroin in huts.

For the camp, Quiñones-Sánchez has long argued for a coordinated approach between the city and Conrail to get the site cleaned up and the people there into treatment - and maybe even home.

There's been progress with Mayor Kenney. From blight and trash removal and better lighting around the camp to increased drug-treatment outreach and shelter and housing opportunities. And outreach workers are helping navigate the maze of getting new IDs, said Joanna Otero-Cruz, the city's deputy managing director for community services.

But there's not yet the full buy-in needed from city agencies.

"We got to own it," said Quiñones-Sánchez. "And no one wants to own it."

Life went on Tuesday at El Campamento. In one hut, a dozen men and a woman squeezed around a table shooting heroin.

One of the men - he gave me his nickname, Cristo - walked me up the hill, away from the makeshift shooting galleries, to tell me his story.

He, too, had been sent from Puerto Rico.

"Right now, it's hell," he said of camp life. Winter is coming. The nights are growing colder.

Then he walked back down the hill, to a place and to people that for so long no one wanted to own, but that now no one can deny.