In Kensington, everyone can agree on one thing: The neighborhood in Philadelphia's river wards needs to be cleaned — of the mattresses, the tents, the piles of garbage, the discarded needles along Kensington Avenue and the surrounding blocks, the detritus of an opioid crisis that pushed city officials to declare a disaster there last month.
But even as officials launched a large-scale cleanup along the avenue Thursday, they acknowledged that the crisis in Kensington can't be fixed by broom-wielding volunteers and city staffers.
"Today's event won't solve the litter problem or the discarded needles," said Brian Abernathy, the city's first deputy managing director.
But he told reporters that the cleanup — one of a few dozen goals for the neighborhood that the city had promised to accomplish before Nov. 15 as part of the disaster declaration — served a symbolic purpose, too. Officials hope it will show this long-neglected neighborhood that the city is serious about addressing its latest and largest crisis.
The disaster declaration is laying bare tensions over the central dispute in helping Kensington — namely, that not everyone agrees on how to do it. Even as she praised city officials for "not only working hard, but working smart in an intentional way," Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents much of the community, told reporters that the neighborhood "cannot take any more."
The city has promised to find a location for a new "navigation center" — a short-term shelter that does not require sobriety and is designed to house people with addiction — within the next two weeks, as it prepares to clear a heroin encampment on Frankford Avenue. There's already one navigation center in the neighborhood, not far from the Allegheny El station, where the cleanup crews met on Thursday, and another low-barrier shelter near the city's only needle exchange, also in Kensington.
Abernathy said the navigation center must be convenient to people in addiction, who often balk at leaving the neighborhood where they can most easily find drugs to stave off the intense pain of withdrawal. "We won't be successful in getting folks off the street without [the center]. That is one of the most important efforts we have, but also one we have the most questions about," he said. "We're confident we're going to find a site for it that is workable for everyone involved."
Quiñones-Sánchez says the neighborhood has hosted enough services for those in addiction, many of whom are not from the community.
"I will not allow them to put another [navigation center] in this neighborhood," Quiñones-Sánchez said. "Kensington has been sympathetic. Kensington residents have been patient. Pero no mas." "But no more."
As cleaning crews picked up needles in McPherson Square Park, raked trash out of vacant lots and gave abandoned storefronts on the avenue a fresh coat of paint, residents said the cleaning was welcome — and long overdue.
"The cleanup is fine, but this area needs more than cleaning up. You see people on mattresses, sleeping. You see people getting their fixes in the neck. Sweeping and mopping is not going to fix that," said Iris Hernandez, 44. "It would be nice to walk out of your house with nothing to worry about — no needles, no overdoses." She has lived near McPherson Square for 15 years, and said she helped reverse two overdoses on her block this summer.
In the park, Elvis Rosado, an outreach worker at the local needle exchange who also lives in the neighborhood and has reversed dozens of overdoses, picked through the grass with a box to collect used syringes. "It's necessary — I just think too many people have locked themselves in and feel like whatever happens outside is none of their business," he said. "We're reminding you your community is still worth something."
Around the corner from the Somerset El station, where a crew of workers was painting vacant storefronts, Daniel Hinkie and a friend sat with a few other people in active addiction, surrounded by piles of clothing, suitcases, and cardboard mattresses. Both were born and raised in Kensington; the friend, 31, who's been addicted for four years and on the streets for two, still has family in the neighborhood.
"They're only doing this because the mayor's coming out," said Hinkie. He said he believed the city only started to pay attention to the crisis in his neighborhood when people from outside Kensington started going there. "But the cleanup is a good thing," he acknowledged. "The neighborhood needed it."