May 8, 2024 - News

Parker administration begins encampment sweep in Kensington

Photo illustration of Cherelle Parker with lines radiating from her.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images.

Philadelphia's new crackdown on homelessness in Kensington begins Wednesday.

Why it matters: The area houses about 39% of the city's unhoused population, where residents have complained for decades about encampments and people using drugs on streets with little fear of being arrested.

The big picture: Kensington's open-air drug market, dubbed the "Walmart of Heroin," is one of the biggest on the East Coast and has drawn international scorn as an epicenter of suffering and lawlessness.

Driving the news: The city is planning to force an estimated 44 people occupying an encampment along a stretch of Kensington Avenue to leave the area Wednesday.

  • Outreach workers have been canvassing the area over the last month, offering housing and drug treatment services to people living there. At least 24 people have accepted placements.
  • Tents or structures that obstruct sidewalks and "pose public health and safety hazards" will be dismantled.
  • Sherylle Linton Jones, a spokesperson for Philly's Office of Homeless Services, tells Axios the city has enough capacity to accommodate everyone seeking treatment or shelter during Wednesday's encampment clearing.

Catch up quick: It's part of Mayor Cherelle Parker's multi-phase plan to shut down the neighborhood's deeply entrenched open-air drug markets and address poverty and disinvestment.

  • Parker has vowed to ramp up police operations in Kensington that target drug dealers and individuals openly injecting drugs.

Between the lines: Some drug users told the Inquirer that police began aggressively policing the neighborhood once Parker took office in January, including making more arrests for low-level drug possession.

  • Parker's approach marks a reversal from the previous administration's, which focused more on containment and harm reduction.

By the numbers: The Parker administration wants to spend $100 million to open the triage centers to help temporarily absorb unhoused people displaced from Kensington.

  • Parker also proposed slashing $1 million in funding from Prevention Point, a social service organization that has provided clean syringes to people who use drugs.

What they're saying: Parker likened the city's previous approaches to a "Band-Aid," per the Inquirer.

  • She said the city must do more to change "the trajectory of people's lives to really try to put them on a path of self sufficiency."

The other side: Critics have panned her approach as lacking compassion for people suffering from mental health problems and addiction. They say similar get-tough crackdowns had little success and only displaced people to other parts of the city.

  • Some health experts fear Parker's shift away from harm-reduction strategies could lead to spikes in communicable diseases, including HIV.

Friction point: Some city legislators have criticized the Parker administration for sharing few details about her Kensington plan, including opening a proposed triage center in Fairmount.

  • A spokesperson for Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, whose 7th District includes parts of Kensington, tells Axios that Parker hadn't communicated details about Wednesday's operation with her but she hoped for a "successful and peaceful outcome" for those requiring assistance.
  • Councilmember Jeffery Young has said that Parker's plan for a triage center in his 5th District was "deeply troubling" because the mayor hadn't discussed it with the greater Fairmount community.

What's ahead: The city will shut down the main business corridor on Kensington Avenue from East Orleans Street to Allegheny Avenue from 8am-3pm Wednesday, per a city news release. Traffic is being detoured to nearby roads, including Frankford Avenue and Emerald Street.

  • In the coming weeks, police will begin a multi-day arrest operation that'll include increased officer presence and warrant sweeps, all in an effort to restore and sustain public spaces and businesses.

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