Hall Monitor Report: the Kensington Caucus

New efforts target Philly’s opioid crisis at Ground Zero, sparking doubts and debate

Let’s talk about the Kensington Caucus, four members of City Council dedicated to solving the problems that have been plaguing this North Philly neighborhood for decades. Once a thriving industrial community, Kensington today is a shell of its former self, with abandoned factories and the East Coast’s biggest open-air drug market. Kensington’s opioid activity is so shocking there’s a whole social media trend where TikTokers and YouTubers come here to record addicts shooting up, zoning out, and suffering grisly “tranq” infections; these exploitative videos attract thousands and even millions of views.

There are also “drug tourists” who ride in on the El from Upper Darby’s 69th Street station, a transportation hub that connects the city with the suburbs and beyond. People come for the easy access, and stay for the cheap, pure opioids to be found here – overwhelming local resources. Longtime residents face this dire public health crisis, as well as theft, vandalism, and violent crime that most certainly impacts property values, quality of life, and economic opportunities.

Indeed, Kensington’s current drug epidemic reflects a “perfect storm” of unique conditions that, thus combined, have resulted in massive social impact. Councilmembers Quetcy Lozada, Mark Squilla, Mike Driscoll, and Jim Harrity organized a special caucus in February of this year to create a cohesive plan to address addiction and homelessness issues via “collaborative strategic teamwork.”

Which brings us to The Philadelphia Hall Monitor, a grassroots news partner, and their thoughtful analysis of recent bills and other efforts enacted in the interest of reclaiming Kensington from the throes of the opioid epidemic. What are these measures, exactly? And – more importantly – what can we realistically expect?

Hall Monitor reporter Allison Beck breaks down the latest Kensington Caucus developments in a thoughtful piece we featured in our April edition of The Local paper, summarized here. Please click the links for more information, and, of course, the full text of Allison’s excellent original article.

REHAB OR PRISON: The Kensington Caucus is Poised to Implement New Measures to Curb the Opioid Epidemic in Kensington. Will it Work?  (Allison Beck, March 12, 2024)

The new approach to handling Kensington’s opioid crisis is stirring vigorous debate, marked by proposals for business curfews, monitoring Narcan usage, and addressing so-called “impermissible camping.” In addition, City Council members are considering centralizing services by phasing out independent harm reduction groups that have provided boots-on-the-ground support for years in the absence of city resources.

This push coincides with the city’s recent acquisition of a former strip club, a $7.1 million investment slated to transform into a triage center. Councilmember Mark Squilla emphasized the center’s focus on comprehensive support including wound care, addiction treatment, and mental healthcare via city hospitals. The goal is to get users off the streets by offering a simple choice: rehab or jail. But is it really that simple?

Harm-reduction advocates have serious doubts. Addiction recovery is not a one-size-fits-all solution but a complex and challenging process with many interacting and exacerbating factors. Adding the threat of incarceration is almost certainly piling on. Without effective training, funding, and capacity, many people seeking help will be set up for failure.

Despite some Council members’ opposition to mass arrests, the Caucus’s plan involves the criminal justice system. When someone is booked for a petty crime like possession, loitering, public intoxication, etc, the city’s Accelerated Misdemeanor Program incorporates community service and mental health treatment into a defendant’s sentencing. Failing to heal is basically a violation of their plea deal, and can land them in jail.

How is that helping, exactly? And why would anyone take that deal, when normally such charges only land them behind bars for a few days, anyway.

Research shows that cycling in and out of jail markedly increases the likelihood that a drug user will overdose in the first two weeks of release. The city’s already prison system is already strained, grappling with violence, overcrowding, understaffing, and human rights concerns. How can we expect it to withstand the additional pressure of individuals who are struggling with addiction?

And what if District Attorney Larry Krasner declines to participate in the Parker administrations “tough on crime” strategies? A legislative work-around known as Act 40 could appoint a SEPTA special prosecutor – what then?

Massive arrests and convictions could be challenged in court, dividing neighbors politically and potentially releasing droves of drug users back onto streets that have been stripped of harm reduction resources.

Meanwhile, addiction experts challenge the very idea of forcing a user into treatment. Study after study indicates that involuntary methods simply don’t work, and furthermore there’s some proof they can actually inhibit a person’s recovery process. Especially when our treatment centers are so underfunded and/or inadequately staffed.

Withdraw is no joke in this age of xylazine aka tranq – a horse tranquilizer that’s added to Philly’s street drugs, usually in combination with fentanyl. The drug isn’t an opioid but a powerful sedative that literally slows down a person’s circulatory system, constricting blood flow, allowing deep lesions to fester at injection sites and extremities where flesh literally rots off bone. In addition, it adds a whole new layer of pain to opioid withdraw, as there are no medical treatments to control potentially life-threatening symptoms.

Local harm reduction leaders seriously doubt whether the city’s stated plan can ensure rehabilitation providers will have the special training and/or facilities to properly provide what these individuals need to overcome this dangerous polysubstance dependence. It’s challenging enough getting people into rehab — when we set them up to fail, they lose faith in us as well as in their own chances for recovery.

As City Council and Mayor Parker’s administration prepare to implement new strategies in the coming months, the Kensington community remains at the heart of the debate, watching closely and hoping for positive change.

LEARN MORE about this complicated issue in Hall Monitor’s original article.

Big thanks to the Hall Monitor for great reporting! Thoughts? Questions? Please leave them in the Comments below or email editor@nwlocalpaper.com.

ABOUT THE PHILADELPHIA HALL MONITOR: Since 2021, this small but mighty team of journalists and consumer advocates have been committed to addressing Philadelphia’s poverty epidemic, and challenging those who sustain it.

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