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On Kensington’s Emerald Street, heroin-weary neighbors hope for a break

And as the city touts its encampment plan as a model for the neighborhood, Torres and his neighbors say everything is business as usual on Emerald Street.

School crossing guard Aiesha Burton talks with students as they cross Kensington and Lehigh.
School crossing guard Aiesha Burton talks with students as they cross Kensington and Lehigh. Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Some things are inherited on Emerald Street — like the block captain title Danny Torres got from his father years ago. Among his responsibilities: sweeping used syringes from the sidewalk and waving heroin dealers away from the stoops.

Torres, 32, has lived here, near one of the city's most entrenched drug camps, since he was 10, and now is raising his own kids. Last week, he listened as trash trucks rumbled down Lehigh Avenue to clear similar encampments on Kensington Avenue and Tulip Street. He and his neighbors wondered why the city hadn't sent them to their block of rowhomes.

"You're going to clean up the areas where there's no houses first?" Torres asked. "It makes no sense."

A week after that cleanup, parts of Kensington reported a sense of relief on Wednesday. The cleared camps are still clear. Overdose deaths in their vicinity have not increased, as some feared. A school crossing guard can steer her young charges across the street without dodging dirty needles.

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But city officials say they will need more money to clear camps at Frankford Avenue as well as Emerald Street, which also is a major heroin marketplace.

"We know they're anxious for us to do the next two, and so are we," said Liz Hersh, the director of the city's Office of Homeless Services. "It is a resource issue."

On Tusculum Street — made famous in the Rocky movies because the house where Balboa lived is still there — neighbors swept their sidewalks in the new quiet they've enjoyed since the Kensington Avenue camp was closed.

Patrick Daly, a car salesman, said police cars had been hitting their sirens if they see anyone lingering on the Kensington Avenue sidewalk. "It's still a long climb, but it's getting back to the way it was about a year ago," he said.

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Across the street, crossing guard Aiesha Burton said she'd spent the last six months coaxing schoolchildren past the camps on their way to the elementary schools on the other side of Lehigh Avenue. Wednesday afternoon, relatives fetching children at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School spoke of the progress they'd seen.

"Every morning, I used to see them. It was a strong smell, a really bad smell, but other than that they didn't bother me," said Somerset Street resident Dilia Perez, 20, there to get her younger brother and sister. "Some days it would scare me. You would never know what would happen, but nothing ever happened."

City officials said they ushered 120 people who had been living in the camps into some kind of services last week; about 40 percent of them had entered treatment. It's unclear where others have gone, if new camps are forming, or if some people have moved into abandoned buildings, commonly known as bandos, in the neighborhood.

"People that could have been saved under the bridge with Narcan are now in the bandos, where nobody sees them — they'll end up dying," said Jeff Johnson, who was on his way to a lot off Emerald where people often use drugs. "That's the horrible thing."

Tim Sheahan, an outreach worker with the city's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, said his team had checked in on a few people who'd been moved, and were keeping an eye out for anyone still unaccounted for. They were at Emerald Street on Wednesday, trying to get more people to accept city shelter or treatment.

"It makes sense to intensify our outreach as we focused on the other two bridges so much last month," he said. He had coaxed a camp resident into treatment by mid-morning.

Residents of the two remaining camps said they were seeing just a few new arrivals each day. "They're clearing these out? When?" asked Ryan Anderson, alarmed. The 39-year-old from Fishtown moved to the Frankford Avenue camp only a week ago.

The residents of Emerald Street feel sympathy for people who sleep on their sidewalks. Torres' old school friend sleeps on a mattress feet from his front door. The man's sister asks Torres to check on him. Another part of the block captain's work.

Yajaria Rosario lives next door to Torres with her two children. She tells them the people who live under the Emerald Street bridge have nowhere else to go.

"A lot of people are like, 'It's crazy, how can you live right there, with all the stuff that goes on down the street?'" she said. "But they're human beings, too. They need help, and if nobody's willing to help them, they're just going to continue."