Police officers, outreach workers, and advocates clustered under the Frankford Avenue railroad bridge Thursday morning, where people in addiction have camped for more than a year, as the last few residents packed up their things and cleared out.
Heroin encampment clearings in Kensington follow a routine now that this, the third major site, has been cleared. Only one large-scale encampment, which has existed for years on Emerald Street, remains.
Frankford camp residents were given a 30-day deadline to move last month. On Thursday, dozens of police officers lined the sidewalk while outreach workers with clipboards encouraged the last stragglers to move and advocates looked on. Some said they believed the police were moving campers out too aggressively. Belongings were piled into plastic containers, loaded into a truck, and packed off to a shelter on Kensington Avenue where, city officials have promised, everyone on a 51-name list from the Frankford encampment is guaranteed a bed. City officials said that 36 of those on the list had entered the shelter.
There were at least 35 people left sleeping in 17 tents in the Frankford camp Wednesday night; it's unclear how many of them were on the list.
"There is an ebb and flow of people through these sites. It's not a static population — even though there were 30 people out there this morning, it's not the same group of people we started with," said Liz Hersh, director of the city's Office of Homeless Services.
About 10 more people who spent one last night on Frankford Avenue made it to the shelter by Thursday morning, as the season's first snowfall began. Between five and 10 other camp residents told city outreach worker Tim Sheahan that they would stay with friends or family.
Clearing the encampment was a short-term goal of what city officials are calling the Philadelphia Resilience Project — a disaster declaration in Kensington designed to help city departments collaborate better and tackle the opioid crisis more efficiently. To prepare for the Frankford Avenue camp closure, the city cleared room in a shelter on Kensington Avenue initially used for people from the first two camp cleanups. That shelter doesn't require residents to stop using drugs and allows them to come and go at night.
"The second time is always easier," Hersh said. "We know what to expect. Last time, we had to create everything from the ground up and now we have a template that was largely effective. I think that this approach of — some sense of urgency, offering the low-barrier housing, the treatment on-demand — that methodology is one that we will continue to use because it's working."
In May, 189 people were initially placed on the city's list of residents at the Kensington Avenue and Tulip Street camps, the first to be cleared. Of that list, 140 used the city's low-barrier shelter at some point, and 56 entered in-patient treatment.
Twenty-six people had entered long-term housing and 29 others had put together housing plans and were planning to leave the shelter — whether that meant entering a recovery house, going into permanent housing, moving to a more traditional shelter, or living with a family member.
Ten were arrested and imprisoned. Three died — two of overdoses, and one in a hit-and-run crash. An additional 37 never came inside and are still encountering outreach workers on the street trying to persuade them to seek shelter. Since the encampments were cleared, 45 have not been seen or heard from.
"What's kind of happened is that we're developing a broader continuum than we've had for our traditional homeless population," Hersh said. "We're learning from the people on the street how to best help them."
Under the Frankford Avenue bridge Thursday, a man named Ryan scooped clothes from trash bags into a backpack and said he was headed to the shelter.
"I'm actually glad to get out from underneath this bridge," he said. "Part of my everyday survival was living under here."
He has been addicted to heroin for five years, he said, and would try to quit cold-turkey once in the shelter.
Nearby, a woman who said she grew up just around the block from the encampment where she had been for last few months said she was going to the shelter. "I'm so dope-sick," the woman said — meaning she was beginning to experience the painful symptoms of withdrawal — and apologized.
At the mouth of the bridge, Sheahan and other outreach workers spoke quietly with a man who had resisted their efforts for weeks. "We had him in the van," an outreach worker told a police inspector, "and then he bolted."
Later, the man reappeared and climbed into a van bound for the city shelter, with the contents of his shopping cart — a broken coffee maker, a window air-conditioning unit — in the seat next to him. Sheahan sighed in relief.
By 10 a.m., no one was left on Frankford Avenue.
The air was colder; snow was falling; and the city had declared a code blue — meaning more shelter beds were open across the city. As street sweepers moved down Frankford, Sheahan and his colleagues made their way over to Emerald. They hoped to find that at least some of the Frankford holdouts would go to that last big encampment.
"At least then I know where they are," Sheahan said. "I worry about those that are single, isolated, without that community aspect."
He clapped Jason Dugre, who has been staying at Emerald Street for a year, on the shoulder.