When Kelly Needham starting re-using heroin after eight years in recovery, she never thought she’d find herself living out in the cold again.
Today she shoots dope – or what passes for dope right now in Kensington – and lives in a tent with friends under the Frankford Street bridge.
“I didn’t think I was going to be out here,” Needham said on Oct. 17, two days after the city posted notices on the legs of the Market-Frankford line in the encampment stating that people experiencing homelessness like Needham had 30 days to clear out. “I dropped out of college to be out here. I didn’t think it was going that way. I swore that I would know when to stop, that I would never let myself go this far.”
But she did go too far – as did so many other people living under the Frankford and Emerald street bridges, the last two drug encampments for people experiencing homelessness to be closed in Kensington. On Oct. 18, Mayor Jim Kenney and city officials provided an update on Philadelphia’s emergency response plan to combat the opioid epidemic, with the number one priority being to clear the Frankford Street encampment by Nov. 15.
Emerald Street, known as “Emerald City,” is set to be evacuated this winter, with outreach there to begin Jan. 15, according to the mayor’s announcement. Over the spring and the summer, the city evicted people from two other encampments, one along Kensington Avenue and the other under the bridge along Tulip Street.
Some people got housing and treatment. Some people were reunited with family.
Others died or went to jail.
Some mourned the loss of the encampments that served as de-facto supervised injection facilities, since people shoot up alongside each other and often have Narcan, the opioid reversal medication, to help in an overdose situation. Others mourned the impending loss of the community they had gained at the encampments.
“If you’re homeless, it’s been a pretty decent place to be, you know,” said Jason Dugre, 42, who has lived on Emerald Street for about a year. “It’s been [a] pretty safe environment actually. The people around me are kind of like a little family here.”
Nonetheless, the encampments “pose a public health hazard to the surrounding neighborhood that needs to be addressed, said Liz Hersh, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services. “It’s a terrible, terrible illness,” she added, in regards to opioid use and the disorder that has driven so many to live on the streets during this nationwide epidemic.
For decades in the West Kensington and Fairhill neighborhoods of Philadelphia, people have been able to buy pure, cheap heroin in what is possibly the largest open-air drug market along the East Coast, according to Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Patrick Trainor. But nowadays, what hits the streets is mainly the lethal fentanyl and its myriad analogues that have caused drug overdose deaths to skyrocket.
Approximately 1,200 Philadelphians died of drug poisonings in 2017, with emergency responders reversing more than 7,000 other overdoses last year.
“Our city is now facing a crisis unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Mayor Kenney said during his Oct. 18 press conference.
In 2017, about 900 homeless people lived on the streets of Philadelphia, about 400 in Kensington and Fairhill. A year later, the numbers have exploded with approximately 1,400 unsheltered people living in Philadelphia, 700 of those living in Kensington and Fairhill, according to city figures.
“The biggest thing that I always just want people to know is if you think this can’t be you, you’re an idiot. There are doctors down here. There are people that have their PhD. It doesn’t matter. It can be anybody.”
— Kelly Needham, a drug user and person experiencing homelessness currently living under the Frankford Street bridge.
Hersh affirmed that city outreach hasn’t stopped since the shuttering of the Kensington Avenue and Tulip Street encampments. “We closed two tunnels in a way that was dignified, and we had unprecedented numbers of people accepted into treatment and housing,” she said. “We did exactly what we said we would do. We’ve also added police officers and trash cleanup and street cleanup. What nobody could anticipate is that the numbers keep growing. This epidemic is still cresting.”
“When we started to think of this as a disaster — when all of your systems are completely overwhelmed — that’s what we have,” Hersh continued. “We’re trying to respond to this huge crisis that is still forming. I actually feel really proud of what we’ve done.”
Why Frankford Street next?
“Emerald Street is more complicated because it’s the center of the drug trade,” Hersh said. “When you interrupt people’s livelihoods, they get emotional. So city officials are taking more time to figure out how to best handle that particular situation.”
In the meantime, Prevention Point, Philadelphia’s navigation center on Kensington Avenue has 40 beds waiting for people who are displaced – spots that are open even to those who are still using drugs, said Kate Perch, the organization’s housing coordinator. In addition, Prevention Point’s outreach team has continued to engage with people living under the bridges, trying to meet them where they are in terms of looking for housing and treatment.
“The one big thing that is different is that it’s going to be winter,” Perch said. “That’s going to up the sense of urgency on everybody’s part.”
Pathways to Housing Philadelphia, another non-profit that is working closely with the city, is offering those qualified, treatment and/or housing. Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services refers people who have been chronically homeless to Pathways, which then finds them an apartment and connects them with treatment and other services if and when they are ready.
“We’ve housed about 20 people in the last month, so it’s been really, really busy,” said Pathways’ Clinical Director of Services Matt Tice.
To users like Dugre, Tice’s claim is a much needed response.
“Of course I believe I’m ready,” Dugre said. “I think I was ready five minutes after being homeless. I don’t want to be out here. I’ve just had a really, really crazy spot in my life right now with the hopelessness, I guess. It’s just hard to make that step.”
Marshall Thomas, 56, whose drug use started when his 20-year-old daughter was killed by a SEPTA bus in 2008, said he stays under the Emerald Street bridge because he is ashamed to return to his family while he is still on crack.
“One day I’ll decide to get clean again. This’ll probably be the last time. Right now I ain’t ready. So I ain’t going to put myself through it, and I’d probably come right out here — so it ain’t worth it me going through treatment spending government money,” said Thomas. “My life ain’t where I want it to be, but I’m where I’m at right now.”
Steve, 34, leaned against the wall under the Emerald Street bridge because his feet hurt. “I’m done. I’m done,” he said. “I’ve got an 8-year-old son. I’m just tired of this life. It’s going to kill my family. My father drives around looking for me, and this shit’s not cool.”
Steve said he is ready to accept help from the city if it comes his way.
“We’re not all bad people,” Steve added. “I got the biggest heart in the world. I’ll do anything for anybody. I just hate being profiled because I’m a drug addict. That really bothers me.”
Needham agreed. “The biggest thing that I always just want people to know is if you think this can’t be you, you’re an idiot,” she said. “There are doctors down here. There are people that have their PhD. It doesn’t matter. It can be anybody.”