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

Residents called the stop a lifeline, helping many people in the neighborhood get to jobs. SEPTA closed it for deep cleaning and to repair elevators damaged by trash, discarded needles and urine.

A group gathers outside of the Allegheny Station on the Market-Frankford El after march to protest to closing of the Somerset station. Residents called the Somerset station a lifeline to get around the city.
A group gathers outside of the Allegheny Station on the Market-Frankford El after march to protest to closing of the Somerset station. Residents called the Somerset station a lifeline to get around the city.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Chanting “safety and solutions now,” about 200 Kensington residents marched between stops on the Market-Frankford El on Tuesday evening to protest SEPTA’s “indefinite” closure of the Somerset Station for cleanup and repairs.

Residents described the Somerset stop as a lifeline, helping many people in the neighborhood get to jobs. “We need to get the city to realize we are hurting,” one resident said.

Many residents said they understood the need for repairs at the station and wanted to improve safety in the area, including for SEPTA workers. But, they said, they weren’t given time to prepare for the closing or a say in the decision.

“You can’t do this and not consult with the community,” said Bill McKinney, the executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp. “They wouldn’t do that anywhere else.”

Somerset Station closed Sunday, in part because of an influx of homeless people and drug users seeking shelter inside and an apparent uptick in crime and disorderly conduct there and on the El. Riders and workers have complained of harassment, threats and, in some cases, assault.

A contractor specializing in disposal of hazardous and medical waste is digging trash and needles from the station’s elevator shafts, SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said. The agency is hoping to finish the repairs as quickly as possible, he said, and is performing a deep cleaning while the station is closed.

» READ MORE: SEPTA is closing El station in Kensington to fix elevators damaged by urine, trash

The residents traveled the half-mile to the Allegheny El stop to demonstrate the extra distance they’ll have to walk to get to jobs and home now that the Somerset Station has closed.

On the steps of the Allegheny Station, Ralph Whitfield, a resident of Orinoka Civic House, an apartment building steps from the Somerset stop, said the station “didn’t have to shut down.”

“Some people decided that some people in the community don’t have a voice,” he said.

Whitfield, who walks with a cane, said he was in pain after the walk. He uses the Somerset stop to get to doctor’s appointments and to travel to the Reading Terminal Market, “to get my meats, fruits, and vegetables,” he said. After the march, he was figuring out which bus route he’d have to take to get back home.

One protester’s sign listed neighborhood demands, including a clear reopening date, safe conditions for SEPTA workers, increased shuttle service along Kensington Avenue, services for the unsheltered and people in addiction, support for affected business, and creation of a neighborhood advisory board.

About 800 passengers were using the station daily before it closed, SEPTA said, 40% of the pre-pandemic level. During the temporary closure, SEPTA is directing riders to the Allegheny Station, to the east, or the Huntington Station, to the west. They also can ride the Number 3 bus, which runs under the El, with free transfers.

Shannon Farrell, the head of the Harrowgate Civic Association, said that losing the station meant losing “an essential part of our community” and that city officials had not listened to residents’ pleas to address problems at the station for years.

She said both people in addiction on the avenue and residents need help, and the city isn’t doing much for either.

City Councilmember Mark Squilla said residents should continue advocating for change and said it was right to hold City Council accountable. “Use your voice, scream it loud,” he said.

“We cannot just fix it and think we’re going to let [problems at the station] come back,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Carlos Miti, who’s lived at Frankford Avenue and Somerset Street for more than two decades, said: “It’s not my fault what’s going on the street. I wish I could fix it. But because the drugs and the crime are getting worse, now I’m not able to use public transportation?”

During the pandemic, many more unhoused people and those in addiction have taken shelter in SEPTA stations and on trains. The issue has been especially acute on the Market-Frankford Line. Yet broader proposals for helping those in addiction, such as medically supervised injection sites, have stalled.

The decision to shutter the station temporarily came as a surprise to many.

“We certainly understand their frustration,” Busch said. “This is something we never wanted to do, but it’s an emergency situation. "

» READ MORE: After subway beating, transit workers’ union says it lacks confidence SEPTA can protect employees

Brighter lighting is being installed in the station, and when it reopens, SEPTA plans to have a mix of security guards and transit police officers reminding people they cannot block the exits and entrances, he said.

The agency also is seeking to work with more social service organizations and medical providers to offer help as an add-on to its SAVE teams of officers and social workers who patrol the subway lines on weekdays and reach out to link people to shelter or treatment for addiction, Busch said.

In his years in Kensington, Miti said, the sidewalks outside Somerset Station have always been a magnet for dealing and drug use. But the station itself is a haven, he said: “When you get into the plaza, you’re fine, you’re safe.”

That’s true for people living on the street as well, said Brooke Feldman, an advocate for people in addiction who runs a buprenorphine treatment clinic in Port Richmond. Many simply have nowhere else to go during the day — something pandemic-related closures have only made worse.

“We haven’t come up with a whole lot of new solutions for where people can go — for people experiencing homelessness to catch some rest, be protected from elements, to be a little bit safer especially at nighttime,” she said. “Riding the El back and forth has long been a strategy.”

The closure of the station followed a series of cascading events that prompted SEPTA to act.

Rank-and-file members of the Transit Police are in open rebellion against Police Chief Thomas Nestel III and system management over conditions. On Friday, the transit officers union, FOP Lodge 109, announced a 133-1 “no-confidence” vote on the chief.

Nestel’s “handling of the worsening homelessness issues on the transit system has led to deplorable conditions, both on the trains and in the stations, and a sharp increase in crime,” Omari J. Bervine, president of the union, said in a statement.

SEPTA on Sunday offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of four suspects in Thursday’s beating of a 55-year-old track worker; the worker was jumped by a group of young men about 11:30 p.m.