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Declaring a disaster in opioid-plagued Kensington, Philadelphia officials announce a new rescue plan

On Wednesday, Mayor Kenney signed an executive order declaring a disaster in the neighborhood, and ordering the creation of an emergency operations center aimed at lowering the bureaucratic walls that have so far hampered the city's efforts to address the crisis.

Neighbors watch as police begin to evict people living at the Kensington Avenue encampment, one of two of Kensington's heroin camps, in Philadelphia, PA on May 30, 2018.
Neighbors watch as police begin to evict people living at the Kensington Avenue encampment, one of two of Kensington's heroin camps, in Philadelphia, PA on May 30, 2018.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI

In Kensington, the epicenter of Philadelphia's opioid crisis, one thing is clear, city officials said Wednesday: What they're doing to fix this devastated community isn't nearly enough.

So on Wednesday, Mayor Kenney declared a disaster in the neighborhood and ordered up a new approach: an emergency operations center, away from City Hall, where staffers from relevant agencies will huddle together and figure out new solutions. The concept is to lower traditional bureaucratic walls in hopes of spurring innovative action, not just reaction.

Unprecedented resources have gone into opening drug treatment and shelter space, clearing heroin encampments from sidewalks, and distributing Narcan. Yet the death rate has skyrocketed, homelessness has doubled, and people are still living on the streets and under bridges.

"The human suffering of people who are going through addiction, what the neighbors are going through, the children who walk to school, is something I can't fathom," said Brian Abernathy, the city's first deputy managing director. "We can't sit there and say this is all we can do, this is all the resources we have. We have to do better. We have to do something different."

At the center, seven city departments, including the city's homeless services and health departments, can coordinate efforts to improve conditions in the neighborhood, setting weekly goals for improvement,  and releasing the results to the public.

Broad goals include reducing homelessness and overdose deaths; reducing trash and litter, including discarded hypodermic needles; increasing the number of people in drug treatment; reducing open-air drug use and sales; and engaging long-term residents and supporting community agencies that already exist in Kensington.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, whose district includes Kensington, said Wednesday's move was a positive step, and would send a message to permanent residents that the city is, at long last, looking out for them. Objectives include cracking down on soliciting prostitution and other crimes, addressing abandoned buildings, reducing property crimes, and creating safe walking routes to schools and subway stops in the neighborhood.

"We've been pretty vocal about the level of frustration," she said. "We're trying to figure out a more proactive way of coming to grips with all the different moving parts [of the crisis]. It's about accountability — every single department who can contribute to this process has to come to the table, so that it's more sustainable."

Wednesday's announcement came the day after advocates announced they'd formed a nonprofit corporation to open a safe injection site, part of harm-reduction efforts to keep drug users alive and urge them into treatment. Though a location wasn't announced, Kensington long has been thought to be the likeliest spot. City officials, however, were careful to emphasize Wednesday that the site is a private entity.

The participating departments will spend the next two weeks laying out the specific metrics they will use to measure success, then they will meet daily to work on the crisis. The center will operate for at least three months, and then other city officials will evaluate its progress. The emergency operations efforts are expected to last at least nine months.

The order won't mean additional dollars for Kensington — at least not at first. Rather, Abernathy said, the aim is to reassess how resources are used now so that agency leaders can try concepts that either will succeed or will "fail, and fail fast" so that they can learn from mistakes and correct them. That's in contrast to the usual bureaucratic model of  spending months outlining plans and obtaining approval from various city departments, he said.

Eva Gladstein, the city's deputy managing director of health and human services, said city outreach workers ran into bureaucratic barriers earlier this year while working to clear two of the drug encampments along Lehigh Avenue. Their task was to get people in the camps into treatment — but outreach workers weren't trained in how to navigate the city's treatment system.

"They, on their own, had to figure out who they needed to talk to to get policies waived or adjusted," she said. "They were all doing it themselves on the ground as situations were developing. This communications structure would enable that to happen without outreach teams themselves having to spend the intellectual energy and time to figure that out."

Abernathy said the city's aim is to approach Kensington just as a government would help a community recover from a natural disaster — which means paying attention to all aspects of the crisis.

"There's nothing like face-to-face coordination between departments," said Noelle Foizen, acting director of the city Office of Emergency Management. "During a snowstorm, for example, the Streets Department might be plowing somewhere that's not helpful for the hospitals. Being in the same room [with those departments], you can fix it right away."

Abernathy said the city can use the emergency center also to help other areas of the city plagued by drug problems, which can be found throughout Philadelphia. But nowhere is the situation more dire than in  Kensington.

Plagued by successive waves of drug crises and long allowed to crumble along with the industry that once employed its residents, Kensington saw homelessness rates double to more than 700 people in August, largely driven by the opioid crisis. Some 150 people are living in large-scale encampments along Lehigh Avenue. HIV infection rates among drug users increased 48 percent over the last year in Kensington.

There's another reason the city is characterizing the new approach to Kensington as a recovery mission, said James Engler, Mayor Kenney's chief of staff.

"A disaster is not meant to be a permanent state," he said. "A disaster happens, and you have to recover back to normalcy. And one of the things we are trying to acknowledge here as an administration is that the current situation in Kensington, for everyone involved, is not an acceptable continuing state. We are creating a new normal for everyone that's there."