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Philadelphia’s Kensington ‘under siege’ as opioid-linked homelessness soars

The latest number — 703, up from 271 a year ago — shows that despite nearly two years of outreach efforts in Kensington, homelessness linked to the opioid crisis has reached a level unlike anything the city has seen.

Byron Cottom, who is homeless in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, tears up as he talks about the struggles of living on the street.
Byron Cottom, who is homeless in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, tears up as he talks about the struggles of living on the street.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

When Philadelphia's Office of Homeless Services finalized the latest tally of Kensington's homeless population this month, what it found was stunning: the number of people living on the drug-plagued community's streets has more than doubled.

The latest number — 703, up from 271 a year ago — caused "borderline hysteria" in the office, said its director, Liz Hersh.

The count, made in August and obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News this week, shows that despite nearly two years of outreach efforts in Kensington, homelessness linked to the opioid crisis has reached a level unlike anything city officials have ever seen before.

"We certainly recognize that things have gotten worse, that the neighborhood is under siege," said Brian Abernathy, the city's first deputy managing director. "People are suffering. We have to do better, and we're exploring new approaches. We expect to have something soon."

The extreme jump in homelessness – by Hersh's estimate, more than half of the city's homeless population is now concentrated in Kensington – is being driven by the opioid crisis. The area is a magnet for people in addiction because heroin is cheap and readily available.

"Let's call the opioid crisis the earthquake we had, and now the tsunami is coming to shore," she said.

And the spike came a year after Philadelphia officials closed a decades-old heroin encampment in the area's Gurney Street train gulch, and four months after two more encampments were shut down along Lehigh Avenue.

Overall, the city counted 1,355 homeless people in August, up from 983 last year. So, without the Kensington spike, the city's homeless population might have declined.

Hersh said most of the neighborhood's homeless weren't simply displaced from the Gurney Street cleanup, which shut down a camp that had operated alongside a Conrail track for years. "It's not just a reshuffling," Hersh said. "It's an influx."

The city is launching several efforts to improve the quality of life in Kensington, she said. Two 40-bed shelters on Kensington Avenue, plus another farther west on Lehigh Avenue, are accommodating former residents of the closed camps, and her office is launching a litter pick-up program that will employ people with substance use disorders or in recovery.

The health department will station needle disposal boxes around the neighborhood to keep needles off the streets, and a police diversion program to help get treatment instead of being arrested is set to expand to the neighborhood, Hersh said. There are also plans to shut down the remaining two major encampments, on Emerald Street and Frankford Avenue, in the fall and winter, she said.

City Council member Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents parts of the Kensington district, said her constituents were "beyond frustrated" with what she sees as the city's implied message: Encouraging the homeless to flock to the area.

"The more we tell people to come to Kensington and nothing will happen, this number will continue to grow," she said.

Last month, she sent a letter to Mayor Kenney and other officials asking the city to "immediately remove" the tents on Emerald Street and Frankford Avenue, and to do the same with smaller encampments that have emerged around the neighborhood. She asked the mayor to explore a "sweep and remove strategy" — holding homeless people overnight in a "staging area" so they cannot sleep on neighbors' porches and steps.

Finally, she asked that the newly opened shelter beds in Kensington — the only ones in the neighborhood — be shut down by next spring because she sees them as detrimental to business development.  Quiñones-Sánchez said the city should find an "industrial location" to house the shelters' residents and have an "engagement center" that's open all day to curb loitering in the neighborhood.

In Kensington, residents, advocates, and people living rough said they can't remember when conditions have been worse in a neighborhood that has seen drug use, drug sales, and homelessness for decades.

"For real, this is crazy," said Byron Cottom, whose sister sleeps in a homeless encampment on Frankford Avenue; he visits her there during the day and sleeps on the sidewalk further north on Kensington Avenue by night. He's been using heroin on and off since 1996 and said Kensington has been swelling "with all types of people. Everybody."

"And the dope is killing people," he said, referring to the fact that a heroin supply once known for its purity is now being adulterated with other drugs.

Outreach workers said they are reversing more overdoses; a batch of drugs cut with a synthetic cannabinoid sickened 165 people on and around Kensington Avenue last month. Newcomers keep arriving; a woman who set up camp outside the Somerset Avenue rail station said she got there two weeks ago after "I lost my job, I lost everything" due to addiction.

Jamie Moffett, a housing advocate who lives with his family south of Lehigh Avenue and works in Kensington, said that in 20 years in the neighborhood, he's never seen so much suffering.

"There's just no small city neighborhood that can itself support this number of sick individuals desperately needing medical care," he said. "I had to find a way to try to explain to my 4-year-old why a man was shooting up in front of a shuttered day-care center on Kensington Avenue. That's a conversation no parent wants to have."

So he didn't explain it to the child. "I sidetracked him. I didn't answer. I didn't have the answer, and I don't."

On the lawn of the McPherson Square library, the epicenter of the overdose spike last month, a woman named Tricia painted her toenails bright red and scrubbed at her hands Tuesday morning. When the overdoses hit, she had been in the neighborhood for two weeks; now, she's up to nearly two months, sleeping on benches in the park or behind a stack of tires outside an Aramingo Avenue shop.

She said she was desperate to leave, but the fear of the pain of withdrawal — the strength of the fentanyl sold in the neighborhood makes "quitting even harder," she said — was too great. Looking for treatment while homeless and facing intense pain, nausea and vomiting is too daunting.

"Neighbors [with homes] will ask us to move, and we're like, 'Sorry, you're right, we'll move.' That anger [in the neighborhood] is understandable," she said. "But when the cops tell us to leave — where do we go? Where do we even go? We don't know what to do."