Philly's 'Camp Heroin' Set To Close

By Victoria Kim 07/26/17

The city plans to provide support to people with drug addiction who will be displaced because of the cleanup efforts.

3 people walking through graffiti-covered underground tunnel

Between 34 to 78 homeless people with drug addictions will be displaced as a result of cleanup efforts at the Conrail railroad site at Gurney Street in Philadelphia. But city officials say they will be ready to pick up the pieces by offering extra social support like housing and treatment.

The city plans to pave over and fence off the well-hidden area surrounding the Conrail train tracks that has become overrun with “garbage, drugs and death,” which the Philadelphia Inquirer calls a “festering heroin hellscape.”

Even Dr. Oz visited the site for a segment of his show this past April, bringing it to national attention.

The city plans to start cleanup before the end of the month, and will begin efforts to connect people to housing and treatment via a new intake trailer parked on Gurney Street. 

The Gurney Street cleanup is part of a larger effort to deal with Philly’s heroin-using population. This includes clearing out McPherson Square, a small park with a reputation for discarded syringes and overdoses, and an abandoned church on Westmoreland Street.

But what will happen to the remaining homeless and drug-using population that frequented these areas? “McPherson has been cleared, Westmoreland has been cleared, now the tracks are about to get cleared,” said Kate Perch of the local harm reduction organization Prevention Point Philadelphia. “What happens to these people when that site is no longer available? Where will they go that is safe?”

Philly spokesperson Ajeenah Amir told Billy Penn that the city will open more beds at public housing units, recovery houses, and shelters; open more inpatient treatment slots within the North Philadelphia Health System; and extend hours at some residential recovery programs.

“We are committed to making drug treatment available to anyone who is willing to accept it.,” said Amir. “Throughout the duration of the cleanup, outreach workers will be on site, engaging with those living or using around the property to encourage them to accept treatment.”

Gurney Street won’t be an overnight fix, local advocates say. The drug problem there began around 1976 when use of the train tracks decreased dramatically. This year, the DEA declared the site the largest open-air heroin market on the East Coast.

“This is a 30-year problem,” says Jose Benitez, the executive director of Prevention Point. “It is not a problem that bounced up overnight. I caution everybody that we’re not going to solve it in one year. It’s going to take a little while. It’s going to take some sustained resources and also allowing our folks to get access to services if they need that, consistently and in the next few years.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr