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May 08, 2024

Police clear out Kensington homeless encampment; advocates frustrated with the process

Outreach organizations say they were scrambling to help people who had been living in tents and other shelters along a two-block stretch of Kensington Avenue.

Government Homelessness
Kensington encampment clearing Daniella Heminghaus/USA TODAY NETWORK

The homeless encampment on Kensington Avenue was dismantled Wednesday as instructed by Mayor Cherelle Parker's office. Above, is file photo taken in December 2023 near McPherson Square, which borders the stretch of Kensington Avenue where the encampment had been.

UPDATE 8:34 p.m.: Philadelphia police dismantled the homeless encampment in Kensington on Wednesday, carrying out the instructions of Mayor Cherelle Parker's administration. As expected, people living on the street in tents and other makeshift shelters were required to leave a two-block stretch, but how the operation was executed prompted criticism from the organizations that are advocates for the homeless population that had been living there. 

Police arrived at the encampment before 8 a.m. The operation focused on the area from East Orleans Street to Allegheny Avenue on Kensington Avenue, and it had been scheduled to take place from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. According to some in the neighborhood and media reports, officers showed up at the scene at least an hour before the time established by the city — the Inquirer wrote Philadelphia police arrived by 7 a.m. and the Kensington Voice reported police were there by 5:30 a.m.

Adam Lion, director of operations for Savage Sisters, said the encampment clearing was "nefariously done." Savage Sisters is an organization that provides housing and harm reduction services to people living in the encampment from their storefront at 3115 Kensington Ave.

MORE: Drug users and unhoused people consider their next paths ahead of city's crackdown in Kensington

"I had high hopes," Lion said Wednesday afternoon. "I had expectations that it was going to be done ethically."  He added he was told police arrived at the encampment at 6:30 a.m.

Parker's office did not respond to a request for comment, but it issued a press release via email at 5:47 p.m. Wednesday touting the "encampment resolution" as a success. Nineteen people accepted housing and social services during Wednesday's operation, the city's statement reads, increasing the total number of people receiving care and shelter to 59 since the city first posted notices about removing the encampment on April 4. 

City officials said, depending on individual needs, the unhoused people from Kensington were placed in safe havens or recovery-focused shelters. Four people were connected directly to drug and alcohol services, officials said. 

No one in the encampment was arrested, a Philadelphia police spokesperson said Wednesday afternoon. Parker praised the work of the city employees involved and Adam Greer, Philadelphia's chief public safety director, said he was proud of the teamwork demonstrated across city departments.

But Parker's office's account of Wednesday's events differs from those given by people with the organizations that had provided outreach and services to the people living in the encampment.

Rosalind Pichardo, who runs Sunshine House, saw first-hand the aftermath of the encampment being cleared out. Sunshine House provides outreach services and basic supplies to people who are unhoused along with being a place where those who had been living in the encampment could access the internet and send messages to family and loved ones.

"I have been out here all day. I have a center full of people, so I can't really talk right now," Pichardo said when she was first contacted by PhillyVoice on Wednesday afternoon.

Interviewed again later in the afternoon, Pichardo said that during the town hall Parker held Tuesday night in Kensington, officials said the encampment resolution would start at 8:30 a.m. But clean-up crews and police showed up much earlier – before most outreach organizations were available, said Pichardo, adding that she was on the streets doing outreach at 5 a.m.

It was a "rough" day, Pichardo said. "It's not OK, it's not OK," she added about how the administration handled the situation.

Sarah Laurel, executive director of Savage Sisters, posted a video to Instagram just after 3 p.m. also dismayed.

"I am very upset that the police treated individuals that way and that the resources that they were promised were not delivered ..." Laurel says in the video.

Another organization, Sol Collective, which works in harm reduction in Kensington, posted a video from the encampment and wrote that they were told, " ... the outreach workers they’d connected with in previous days told them to meet them at their encampments at 8am for transport to shelter/treatment. Instead, they were scattered and dispersed without making outreach contact, the belongings they could not carry destroyed."

The mayor's office said 88 people had been offered medical assistance between April 9 and May 7. That included care for those with necrotic wounds, which are associated with the animal tranquilizer xylazine that's now found in most of Philadelphia's street drugs. 

During the last month, city officials said they conducted daily outreach in the area of the encampment involving multiple agencies and partner organizations. One program included focused outreach three days per week between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., resulting in 32 placements.

Officials said daily outreach and engagement teams will remain in the area 

"Our outreach teams are Philadelphia's unsung heroes, and they all put their heart and soul into every engagement," said Noelle Foizen, director of the city's Overdose Response Unit. "Teams work tirelessly to support each person including addressing anything that could be a barrier to placement."

See the original story below.

City officials will clear a homeless encampment along a two-block stretch on Kensington Avenue on Wednesday. 

Kensington Avenue will be closed from East Orleans Street to Allegheny Avenue from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. while social service workers and police officers inform people living tents and other structures that they have to leave. City officials said people will be directed to drug treatment services, shelters and other social services. The city also is providing bus tickets to people willing to reunite with family members outside Philadelphia.

"The temporary closure is needed to ensure the safety of city outreach teams as they engage individuals during the final day of encampment resolution on Wednesday, May 8, during which individuals residing at the encampment have been notified to dismantle any tents and structures that pose public health and safety hazards and obstruct sidewalk passage," the city said in a news release.

Outreach organizations and workers have been warning people in the area about the impending clearing for several weeks and offering aid services. The city also put up signs last month saying that camping and storing belongings in the area is prohibited. The signs included information for contacting the city's Homeless Outreach hotline and the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. 

Though police officers will be present, the Philadelphia Police Department has said social service workers will lead the effort. 

"Officers are going to be very hands-off," police spokesperson Eric Gripp told Kensington Voice. "It will be services-led. If a need arises for police intervention, we will have police in the area. But it is not an enforcement event." 

City workers and outreach groups have estimated that 30 to 75 people will be forced to move. Though some may enter addiction treatment centers or homeless shelters, others may move elsewhere in the city. Last week, Mayor Cherelle Parker's administration said it would increase accommodations at a city homeless shelter in Fairmount and connect the people moving there to treatment. 

Kensington has the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast, and about 35% of the city's unhoused population is located in the neighborhood. For years, people experiencing homelessness or substance use disorders have struggled to coexist with the neighborhood's longtime residents. 

The encampment clearing is part of Parker's larger strategy for the neighborhood. She has declared a public safety emergency and tasked her administration with carrying out a five-phase revival plan. However, many have been critical of her strategy, including the administration's decision to drop funding for needle exchange programs.