Law Enforcement

Mayor Cherelle Parker’s Kensington ‘resolution’ clears out tent encampment around open-air drug market

The dismantling of tent encampments Wednesday morning came on the final day of a 30-day outreach window in the struggling neighborhood

Homeless people are seen on streets of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.

Homeless people are seen on streets of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. Fatih Aktas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Following decades of failed efforts to crack down on the open-air drug market and tent encampments in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Mayor Cherelle Parker’s administration has taken its definitive attempt to uplift – and remove – those on the streets in the community.  

On the final day of a month-long outreach initiative where city workers met with homeless individuals to let them know they will be removed from the sidewalks and will be offered treatment services, city workers, police and street cleaning crews Wednesday swept through a two-block stretch of Kensington Avenue to put an end to any presence of an encampment. 

Metal blockades were spread out across storefronts along Kensington Avenue to keep people from staying on sidewalks. But in the immediate vicinity of the encampment resolution, including several blocks on Allegheny Avenue and streets surrounding McPherson Square Park, the litter and open-air drug use were apparent and continuing without intervention. 

City officials were expected to give updates to press early this afternoon but offered little detail late in the morning. Officials also previously said the encampment clearing would be led by outreach workers, but witnesses said it was police officers who escorted away advocates and people living on the streets, forcing some individuals to leave their belongings.

Officials then announced Wednesday evening that a total of 59 people accepted housing and services through the 34-day process, including 19 who came in during Wednesday’s efforts.

Among the 59 individuals whom accepted services, 55 connected to housing assistance and four people connected to drug and alcohol services. 

Noelle Foizen, director of the city’s Overdose Response Unit, said outreach teams “put their heart and soul into every engagement.” 

“Teams work tirelessly to support each person including addressing anything that could be a barrier to placement such as accessibility, mobility, pets, couples, etc. and work hard to find the right resource in challenging situations where at times they are threatened and harassed,” Foizen said in a statement Wednesday. “They are brave and strong and represent the best of us and Mayor Parker’s vision to connect people to long term care, treatment and housing opportunities.” 

Parker defended her plans in a town hall Tuesday night but recognized it’s a work-in-progress, comparing the plan to “building the plane while I’m flying it.”

“We made consistent investments in Band-Aid approaches to something that has been systemically occurring year, after year, after year,” Parker said Tuesday, “and we’ve done nothing to change the trajectory of people’s lives to really try to put them on a path of self-sufficiency.”

Keisha Hudson, chief defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said she recognizes the need for “immediate action” in the area, but said Wednesday’s efforts are “a return to draconian and ineffective crime and drug policies.”

“We have long believed that it’s a bad idea to rely on the criminal legal system to solve a public health crisis. The unintended harms of the planned ‘jail vs. treatment’ strategy outweigh any derived benefits for people in addiction. The city’s action’s also threaten to overwhelm the court and jail system, and will likely shift the current problem to other neighborhoods that haven’t been receiving the same amount of attention,” Hudson said in a statement Wednesday. 

"Despite our efforts to be included in the discussions around Kensington, the Defender Association has received little information about the city’s plans. This is troubling because our office represents a significant percentage of adult men and women from Kensington."

Shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, nearly an hour before the clearing of tents was scheduled to begin, officials began making individuals leave the area. Drug users and others living on the street, who are not allowed to remain within the two-block radius, were relocated and offered access to social services like shelter, housing and recovery treatment. 

There was a police presence Wednesday, but managing director Adam Thiel said the goal of Wednesday’s activities was to offer help to those seeking it. Chief Public Safety Director Adam Geer also told City Council members during a hearing Monday that people would “absolutely, unequivocally” not be arrested. 

The city has sought to clear out encampments in the Kensington area in the past, which had led to arrests and many drug dealers and users returning to the area soon after. Without going into much detail, the Parker administration has said it’s working on a long-term solution to provide policing, human services and neighborhood revitalization plans to prevent such repeats from happening. 

Officials noted the number of people who are homeless in the city has increased about 12% from last year. The city estimates that about 675 people are living on the street in Kensington, but only about 75 have been consistently living in the targeted stretch. Over the last several weeks, there have been fewer than 10 tents on the street.

Foizen said the city has had more than 700 conversations with people living in the encampment, and about two dozen people had already accepted treatment or shelter before Wednesday. Over the last month, outreach workers have visited the encampment from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays, and additional workers stopped by from 4 to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. They reportedly engaged up to 75 people in the Kensington community and observed seven tents during that time span.