Daniel, 37, has been dealing drugs in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood for years. The Lancaster County native has seen drastic changes on two fronts: the increased potency of the drugs on the market and the resulting behaviors of addicts, many of them homeless, buying these drugs. Gone are the days, he says, when one could purchase crystal meth and be certain that there were no additives in it. Today, fentanyl (a synthetic opioid stronger than morphine) is added to most street drugs. Daniel says the addition of fentanyl is intended to get the buyer addicted as quickly as possible because addiction ensures future sales.
Fentanyl has changed what it means to get high. Its users generally find themselves in a zombie-like state, unable to communicate or walk in a straight line. Some experience aggressive behaviors, hallucinations, and paranoia. Users who combine fentanyl with K2/Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid, often wind up screaming inanities in public or lose control of their bodily movements. In Kensington, it’s common to see K2 users behave as if they were in the throes of an epileptic seizure—they dance out into city traffic, arms and legs jerking violently, or thrash about on the ground, while those in a fentanyl trance stand immobile, bent over, their faces almost touching the ground.
In 2020, Philadelphia officials estimated the number of homeless people in the city at 300; police put the number at 650. The Office of Homeless Services has recently revised its estimate of the number of people living on the streets to 958. One homeless couple I met traveled to the city from Pittsburgh because they heard that Philadelphia was the place to go for affordable drugs. I encountered Elvis, 30, as he sat on the sidewalk near the local firehouse in my neighborhood while his wife, a tall, statuesque blonde, canvassed traffic with a “Homeless and Hungry” cardboard sign. “My wife makes better money than I do when she works traffic,” Elvis told me, “so I sit here and watch her to make sure she’s okay.”
The homeless are also drawn to city neighborhoods near the Market–Frankford El stations from Somerset to Allegheny, the latter being a nerve center for drug activity. With the exception of documentary filmmakers, YouTubers, and journalists, decent Philadelphians generally avoid the area. In this city-within-a-city, one can see men and women in various stages of stupor or high anxiety (K2) helping friends find the least collapsible vein in whatever body part seems most promising. During one brief visit, I saw one person OD, two people arrested, and various volunteer groups pull up in SUVs, offering free pizza. The finishing touch was the arrival of a Franciscan nun (in full habit) handing out coffee and snacks.
Last month, the city cleared out a large homeless encampment at Allegheny. City officials had warned residents back in July that the cleanup was coming. The quick action suggests that the city wanted to avoid a repeat of the tent-encampment standoff that occurred on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in summer 2020, when political activists took control of the camp and issued ultimatums to the city and the police. That encampment, known as Camp James Talib-Dean, drew the ire of neighbors in the Logan Square neighborhood, many complaining that they felt threatened, citing violent assaults and aggressive panhandling. The city finally disbanded the camp last October.
But disbanding an encampment without a viable housing alternative just means that you’re chasing people elsewhere. That was the case in 2017, when Philadelphia razed the mammoth homeless camp known as El Campamento, which was hidden from public view behind the Conrail railroad tracks in Kensington. The largest open-air drug market and shooting gallery on the East Coast, El Campamento was the subject of a 2017 photo essay in The Atlantic. “People come from throughout the city, and some as far away as the Midwest, for heroin that is remarkably cheap and pure,” the magazine reported. City workers began cleaning up and closing down the camp in July 2017, but the camp’s inhabitants wound up dispersed throughout the city, especially to parts of Kensington and Port Richmond, where they set up multiple smaller tent cities under bridges and overpasses.
During the Allegheny encampment cleanup last month, outreach workers and police gave evictees the option to agree to services (including rehab) rather than move out. Most rejected the offer. Eva Gladstein, Philadelphia’s deputy managing director for health and human services, reported that outreach workers had helped more than 20 people connect with social services during the disbandment of the Allegheny camp as well as a smaller camp nearby. “When we can make the right connection for people, it’s really successful,” she said. “It doesn’t work the first or the second or the third or the fourth time for everybody, so we keep engaging for those that we can.”
Helping 20 people is a drop in the bucket, though, especially when you consider the daily influx of homeless into Philadelphia from other cities. The numbers of new (addicted) homeless coming into the city tends to overwhelm the small percentages of people funneled into city services.
A sense of futility haunts the process of disbandment and relocation; the exiled homeless have no place to go except to other camps that in time will also be disbanded. Many of the homeless from the disbanded Allegheny camp filtered into the nicer sections of nearby Port Richmond. Suddenly business owners and neighbors there confronted homeless addicts shooting up or sleeping on the grass under the bright lights of an Applebee’s restaurant or hovering in the shadows behind the nearby Wawa. Neighbors also noticed an increase in the migration of different homeless groups into the neighborhood and trails of discarded syringes.
Currently, the city’s other “El Campamento,” McPherson Square, not far from Kensington and Allegheny, is home to more than 100 homeless people on most nights. This once-beautiful city park, formerly a Lenape Indian hunting ground, is the site of a handsome library donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1917. From the 1930s through 1960s, the park was the scene of parades and festivals. Today, the area is known as Needle Park because the only visitors you’re likely to find are addicts buying and selling or shooting up on benches, or in front of the side mirrors on nearby parked cars when they need help injecting a syringe into the neck. Frequent attacks from groups of local teenagers with baseball bats have kept even many of the homeless here on their toes.
How the city will address its recurring tent-city problem remains to be seen. In April, the Biden administration gave Philadelphia $42 million to fund housing and services for the homeless. The money comes from a $5 billion fund dedicated to emergency housing assistance in the American Rescue Plan. City officials say the funds will be used to create single-occupancy units or shared housing for three adults.
Will the Biden money help Philadelphia seize control of this escalating problem, or will the influx of even more homeless like Daniel and Elvis overwhelm the city?
Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images