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Shuttered El stop illuminates depth of Philly’s entrenched social problems

Addiction, lack of affordable housing, inequity — and a pandemic — have driven people to shelter on SEPTA trains.

SEPTA Transit Officer Alexander Bires and outreach specialist Kenneth Harris (right) approach a woman interested in getting help with her addiction at the Somerset Station of the Market Frankford El. She is eating breakfast while sitting on her suitcase.
SEPTA Transit Officer Alexander Bires and outreach specialist Kenneth Harris (right) approach a woman interested in getting help with her addiction at the Somerset Station of the Market Frankford El. She is eating breakfast while sitting on her suitcase.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The woman paced in the Somerset El station, anxious with heroin withdrawal. Her breakfast cooled in a Styrofoam container.

She had found a bed at a rehab, but the center didn’t follow through, she told outreach specialist Kenneth Harris. A roller-bag suitcase sat nearby.

“I’m still out here,” she said, crying. “I give up.”

Harris, of the human services nonprofit Merakey, works for a SEPTA program pairing transit police officers with social workers to offer help to people struggling with addiction and homelessness.

It’s no panacea, but rather a dogged one-to-one effort to address complex social ills that have hit the transit agency hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as it loses $1 million a day due to depleted ridership.

The Market-Frankford Line, which runs through Kensington, the center of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, became a refuge of last resort as pandemic restrictions shrank an already inadequate number of shelter options and rehab beds in the neighborhood and across the city.

Commuters and SEPTA employees have complained of open drug use, harassment, and even violence on trains and in stations. Somerset El station, a hub of drug use and sales, closed indefinitely last Sunday because of the disorder while elevators wrecked by corrosive urine and needles are repaired.

People who live in the neighborhood were incensed, saying it was unfair to single out Somerset. They believe the transit agency wouldn’t have dared close a station in a more prosperous area.

As much as anything, it’s a tale of the city’s long-term failures in Kensington.

Leaning in close on that recent morning just before the shutdown, Harris urged the woman to act on her instinct to enter treatment: “Remember how much you want your kids back.”

Nowhere to go

On Tuesday, a handful of people clustered on the sunny sidewalk just outside Somerset Station, preparing syringes of heroin. A chain-link fence blocked off the El entrance.

“People still have to go to work — don’t make them suffer,” said a woman who declined to give her name. “And I use that train to go where I have to go. I have to suffer this, too.”

That night, community activists and residents marched up Kensington Avenue to protest the closure of one of their key connections to the rest of the city.

» READ MORE: Kensington protests closing of SEPTA’s Somerset El station, a lifeline for a battered neighborhood

The situation at Somerset Station illuminates the city’s deepest social problems — addiction, lack of affordable housing, and inequity — as well as the impossibility of a transit agency alone solving them.

People in active addiction on the avenue say El stations are some of the few shelter options available to them. A handful of drop-in centers — like the one at Prevention Point, the public health organization — allow people on the street to rest inside.

But there’s simply not enough room to shelter everyone on the avenue. What little space there is has been reduced to accommodate pandemic-era social-distancing requirements.

City officials say they’d like to open more drop-in centers but are stymied by zoning requirements and skeptical residents.

In the meantime, people fill the sidewalks outside the El stations and inside, while they are open.

“You do your best to get into a shelter, but it’s hard,” said Anthony Povia, 35, sitting on an upturned bucket outside the Somerset Station. “I’ve been out here since January, and I’ve only gotten a bed about 12 times.

“I know they didn’t like us sleeping around the station,” he said. “It’s upsetting people. I’m sorry if we look dirty — we’re not trying to scare anybody.”

Well-being checks

SEPTA officials have chosen to respond not with removal or arrests, but instead with efforts like the SAVE patrols of transit police and behavioral specialists such as Harris. Customers are complaining about conditions.

Commuters on the MFL “are very unhappy,” Transit Police Chief Tom Nestel said. “They want every person who is homeless or addicted to drugs to be arrested. That’s just not going to work.”

Transit officers who find unconscious passengers or people in stations are instructed to perform “well-being” checks, asking if a person needs help. In January 2020, officers completed 546 such checks across the system, according to SEPTA. In the first month of this year, that more than quadrupled, to 2,357 checks.

There were 15,741 citations this January for loitering, both people who ride the trains and do not disembark and those who hang out in stations, up 60% from the same month in 2019 and about a third higher than January 2020, before coronavirus restrictions.

Conduct violations, including blocking passageways and lying on seats or floors, rose 25% from December 2020 to January: 2,632 to 3,291.

Nestel said police officers cannot fix drug addiction or mental illnesses, nor build affordable housing.

“This is not a failure of policing. This is a societal failure … We [police] wear too many hats as it is.” Nestel said. “That’s what’s gotten us in trouble.”

The transit police union representing SEPTA officers, however, says that the current deployment plan has stretched them too thin, and they no longer have the option to arrest people on charges of “defiant trespass” after several conduct violations and keep them off the system.

“It’s our job to protect the riders, no matter where they live,” said Omari J. Bervine, president of the Fraternal Order of Transit Police. “When our ‘best’ solution is to give up, to surrender a station, that’s unacceptable.”

‘They ain’t shutting down 30th Street’

Housing for people on the avenue would help clear the crowds in front of the El stations — as would a supervised injection site — said a man who gave his initials as J.M., among a large group of people outside the Allegheny El stop Tuesday afternoon before the protest.

“It’ll get better if they start giving people housing,” he said. “And no one wanted an injection site in their backyard, but it’s here anyway.”

J.M. said he’d been encouraged to see residents of a protest encampment of people that sprang up last summer on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway get housing. “Why can’t they do that for us?” he said.

As long as Somerset Station remains closed, he said, the number of people sleeping and using heroin outside Allegheny Station, a half-mile farther north, will increase.

“They won’t let it happen in Huntingdon. Not in ‘Hipsterville,’ ” he said, referring to the stop just south of Somerset station, where proposals for residential development are booming.

Neighbors said they weren’t sure why Somerset Station had been closed when they see similar issues at others.

“Why make Somerset suffer, when Allegheny is even worse?” said Khyle Williams, standing with a friend outside of a convenience store across from the Somerset stop. “Downtown is just as bad. They ain’t shutting down 30th Street, 15th Street. And every single block around Allegheny, they’re selling drugs.”

Carlos Miti, who has lived near Somerset Street and Frankford Avenue for more than 20 years, said the elevators at Somerset have rarely worked. For more than a decade, Miti has driven his husband, who uses a wheelchair, to the working elevators at the Berks station, several stops south.

Charrice Morris, a resident at Orinoka Civic House, an affordable-housing apartment building steps from the Somerset stop, said she has been taking Uber to work since the stop closed — which can run up to $50 a ride.

“I can walk to Huntingdon, but walking under the El is not safe,” she said. ”We have to truly, truly help the homeless, instead of just displacing them.”

Years of attempts to close encampments around the neighborhood have frustrated pretty much everybody. The 2017 closure of the Gurney Street encampment — a train gulch where dozens of people used heroin daily — made drug use more visible on Kensington’s main thoroughfares.

In 2018, the city dismantled four large encampments along Lehigh Avenue, offering their residents housing and treatment for substance abuse. Though many in the camps accepted, they were only a fraction of the population living on the street there. For the last three years, smaller encampments have emerged on the avenue and surrounding streets, only to be shut down and pop up somewhere else.

Many people in Kensington see the closure of the Somerset Station as another link in a long chain of failures by city government in the neighborhood.

Bill McKinney, the executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp., said residents’ anger over the station closure is the fruit of distrust of both SEPTA and the city.

“Historically, look at how many failed efforts that have occurred up here,” he said. “People don’t trust, and don’t believe anything anyone says at this point.”

He said the situation in Kensington can’t be left to the neighborhood alone to solve.

“There’s no part of the city that has been asked to carry as large a burden. This is not just a Kensington issue — this is a Philadelphia issue,” McKinney said. “This is a New Jersey and Delaware issue. … They’re caring for your kids out here — they’re feeding people on the corners that have come from all over.”

City officials stress they’re trying to improve conditions in Kensington even as the pandemic has complicated that work.

» READ MORE: Philly City Council members announce new police station, other initiatives in Kensington

They’ve launched a new Philadelphia police substation in the area and are hiring additional workers to staff a diversion program that allows police to direct people in addiction to treatment, instead of jail.

Finding housing or hotels for people still in addiction has been more difficult, they said. Many are reluctant to leave the neighborhood, because losing a steady supply of drugs means painful withdrawal. But large-scale housing options in the area are few, said Noelle Foizen, head of the city’s opioid response program.

“A huge priority of ours is a drop-in center” where people in addiction can spend the day inside, instead of on the streets, Foizen said. “But we’re having trouble identifying locations. We would need community buy-in, zoning … it’s difficult.”

‘Moment of clarity’

There are hard-won, if small, victories. The woman Harris and his SAVE team approached in Somerset Station entered treatment later that day, Merakey said.

“It was the same dog that bit me,” said Harris, who has been in recovery for five years but spent 19 months on the streets around Kensington. “She was having that moment of clarity.” People in addiction often need several rehab attempts to succeed, but Harris has hope.

Transit Police Officer Alexander Bires, with two years on the force, volunteered for the SAVE initiative when it was being organized about six months ago. He said he has seen de-escalation tactics and social service interventions work.

“Police are here to protect and serve,” said Bires, 25, a Bucks County native who graduated from Rider University in New Jersey. “This is about serving the community we are a part of.”