Philadelphia Grapples With Closing Heroin Camps

By Kelly Burch 05/31/18

The city has promised to move people who are currently encamped in the area into drug treatment and permanent housing.

heroin camp
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City officials and charitable groups in Philadelphia are grappling with how best to help people as the city moves to dismantle tent cities that are overrun with opioid abuse.

City officials hope to have four encampments closed by the end of May, and are giving camp residents priority access to housing and drug treatment. 

“What I predict is going to happen? This bridge will be cleaned out, Tulip [encampment] will be cleaned out, they’ll go to the other bridges, they’ll go in abandoned buildings,” Nicole Bixler, a social worker, said earlier this month. “The community will be broken up, and they’ll die alone, and no one will know until we smell them in the summertime.”

The camps are home to about 180 people, many of whom inject opioids. Last year, Philadelphia cleaned out its largest heroin encampment, which had become so well-known that it was featured on an episode of The Dr. Oz Show. The camp was home to people with addiction, many of whom moved on to other areas of the city when the camp was cleared out. 

This time, the city has promised to move people who are currently encamped in the Kensington area of the city into drug treatment and permanent housing. Each day, city workers visit the camps to try to get people into area shelters or into treatment. In the past two weeks 39 people have entered treatment, more than in the past six months, according to the Philly Inquirer.  

“Everybody wants it to work,” said City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, whose district has three of the encampments and two shelters that people are being relocated to. “This is the closest we’ve gotten to breaking down barriers on access to housing and treatment. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but we’re there.” 

Still, some residents of the camp are frustrated that it took so long for the city to come up with a viable solution to the housing and drug crisis. 

“Why wait until now to do this?” said Ryan Forrest, 28, who has lived in one of the camps for seven months. “Why did they let so many people get frostbite during the winter?”

Forrest wasn’t sure what he was going to do when the camps were cleared, until he realized that he was on the city’s list of camp residents who were being prioritized for treatment and housing. 

“I was going to stay until the end. I didn’t really have a plan,” he said. “But they were pushing me to the shelter, and they told me I was on the list, and I went up there.”

People who work closely with the homeless population that lives in the camps are cautiously optimistic that reluctant residents like Forrest may get help with the new programming. 

“I’m scared for what may happen,” said Tim Sheahan, an outreach worker with the city’s Department of Behavioral and Intellectual Disability Services. “We’ve gotten as close to treatment on demand as possible.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.