Alcohol & Heroin

One of my current projects is evaluating the City of Philadelphia’s efforts to “resolve” several homeless encampments here in Philadelphia.

The four encampments in question are located under a series of railway underpasses in the Kensington section of Philadelphia along a half-mile corridor on streets connecting Somerset Street and Lehigh Avenue under a set of active Conrail railroad tracks. Kensington has become notorious as the center of the Philadelphia’s heroin activity.

As part of this project, I’ve had access to the City’s workings in conjunction with both clearing the physical camp locations and relocating as many of those in the camps who want to go to housing or treatment services. In doing this, the City can address the concerns of both the neighborhood residents, who mainly want the camps removed, and advocates for what I’ll term a harm reduction approach to the burgeoning opioid crisis, who are concerned with the lack of alternatives for those in the camps should they get rousted from these locations. My colleagues and I just completed an preliminary report on the process up to the closing of two of the four camps, and we are continuing to look at what happens to those who took up the offer of treatment and/or housing. I’ll post the report on this site once it becomes available for public dissemination.

I’ll give a quick spoiler to say that my personal impression (also reflected in our report) is that the City did a good job given the difficult position it was in and the limited resources at its disposal. The process involved a broad collaboration between various City departments and local non-profits, and in May two camps were closed in what was as smooth a process as could have been hoped for. At least as importantly, the City also used this process to streamline the process for accessing detox and treatment services for homeless individuals and seeks to implement these reforms more broadly. A media account of this clearance process provides more details of all this.

One of the things I’d like to do with my involvement in this project is write some on the historical connections between contemporary Kensington Avenue area roughly between Allegheny and Somerset streets and historical skid row. The idea has been kicking around in my head since I first started spending some time there a few months ago and thinking how this will be the closest thing I will ever see to the skid row neighborhoods that vanished a half century ago.


This is my first attempt to sketch this thought on paper (metaphorically). One of the things that fascinates me about skid row is how it was a very geographically contained environment with a physical and social ecology that was built around poverty and alcohol. It was a miserable place, but once the bum landed on skid row it was also an insular place, one where he could get his needs met and subsist largely within maybe a five-block radius. Kensington is like that as well. Instead of alcohol you have heroin, which makes the logistics of Kensington Avenue much different than those of old Vine Street. While most of those on skid row were more socially homeless than literally homeless (most slept in cheap flop houses and rescue missions), in Kensington literal homelessness (ergo the emergence of encampments) is much more literal. Ecologically, however, once again the person sleeping in a Kensington underpass can subsist within a five block radius.

With this I have started down the road to filling out this sketch. Actually I started it in my last piece on skid row last year, when I wrote about the presence of alcohol on the row and, at the end, speculated about Kensington and opioids may have that same symbiotic relationship. A year ago I didn’t know shit about Kensington; today I’m learning. These next few months will be crazy, and I’ll have all sorts of impediments get in the way of writing stuff like this, we’ll see how that goes. But if nothing else, at least here I have an initial step. Stay tuned.

Stephen Metraux