On Wednesday, Mayor Kenney declared a disaster in opioid-plagued Kensington, which would now receive focused city services targeted at reducing drug use and the deaths that accompany them.
Kensington resident Gilberto Gonzalez, 54, one of his neighborhood's most outspoken advocates, says he and his neighbors have known for years that there's a disaster. And they say the city has dismissed how deeply residents have been affected by the danger, crime, and heartbreak that the drug culture has brought to their front steps.
Gonzalez, who is the senior graphic designer at Community College of Philadelphia, is a lifelong Philadelphian whose 14-year-old son attends Russell Conwell Middle School, which sits at the epicenter of the epidemic. He says no one will chase him from the city he loves, but he is fed up with his community's residents being ignored. And so, once again, he is speaking out.
Describe your front-row view of a nightmare.
In June, my son's school was on lockdown three times because the drug dealers were in a shoot-out war for the corner. The kids had to hide under their desks, away from the windows. They were calling their parents, terrified.
The same month, the dealers were right outside the school, giving away free samples.
Wait – like a marketing effort?
Exactly. There was a stampede of people, pushing past kids to get the drugs. It was horrifying. A security guard and I were trying to pull the kids out of the way and get them into the school before they got knocked down or stuck with a needle.
We live just two train stops from my son's school, but my fiancee or I drive him every day; we won't let him take the train or ride his bike because he would have to pass people who literally have needles hanging out of their arms. Sometimes these people are right outside his school. The teachers tell the kids, "Look away."
You say the situation has escalated over the last decade. How so?
Ten years ago, there were dealers, but they were from the neighborhood. We knew them. You could say, "Hey, can you not sell here?" And they'd move on.
Now, they're from all over the city. They come here because business is good. They're aggressive, dangerous, and at war with each other. They're also brazen. When the cops aren't around, they stand right in the middle of the street and sell. You have to wait until they're done before you can pass them. If you honk, they'll threaten you. They're armed and horrible. And the panhandling has never been worse. It's become frightening.
In what way?
They're more aggressive. I can't even buy gas anymore along Kensington or Lehigh [Avenues]. They demand money, and when you say you don't have any, they curse you and tell you to go inside and get some. I get my gas on Spring Garden Street now.
What do you think about safe injection sites?
I'm worried. The city has not been able to manage the encampments; how are they going to manage an injection site? It will attract more users, and that will attract more dealers, who are violent. What's the plan? Why isn't the area flooded with cops arresting the dealers? I have no confidence in the city anymore, and they're condescending to us when we complain. [City Councilwoman] Maria Quiñones-Sánchez has been the only person to see the totality of the problem.
Can you elaborate?