Philadelphia: Drug crisis in Kensington calls for reparations

Philadelphia

From around the East Coast, a flock of drug users gather in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. From as far away as Puerto Rico, users come to get the Kensington drug fix. This open-air drug market spans chunks of Kensington Avenue and its side streets. 

Intravenous drug user under the El train in the Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia, April 4, 2018. Credit: Jonathan Elderfield

This writer has been there; it is not a place for the faint of heart. A person risks their life, being robbed, slashed and hearmed in unimaginable ways, on top of risking their life by having the fix.

The fix itself is highly dangerous. It used to be mainly heroin with some adulterants – that’s how Kensington got its reputation as “ground zero” of Philadelphia’s drug epidemic.. Now, heroin is rare and there’s a high risk of a user getting fentanyl analogues (illicit and dangerous alterations of fentanyl, such as acetylfentanyl, ohmefentanyl, or the  ever-deadly elephant tranquilizer carfentanil).  

A user also risks getting Tranq dope, which is cut with xylazine, a tranquilizer usually used on horses and cattle; it can and does eat away at human flesh when snorted or injected. Because xylazine is not an opioid, Narcan is unable to reverse its effects.  

The sheer poverty in Kensington is obvious. Police presence in the neighborhood is extremely heavy, although this does nothing to change the nature of Kensington, nor would that make anything better. The cops just harass and arrest drug addicts. No matter how many times one goes there, one is never truly prepared for what one will definitely see. 

Street activist Brooke Feldman called the current state of Kensington a “humanitarian crisis”; the truth of this statement is apparent. There are people using drugs, overdosing and dying on the streets of Kensington; 169 people died of overdoses from fentanyl and fentanyl analogues in 2021 alone. The impact of Tranq dope and benzo dope — heroin or fentanyl cut with benzodiazepines like Xanax —  on the neighborhood’s overdose death rates has yet to be seen.

A crisis for the entire neighborhood

This state of affairs is awful for addicted people and residents of Kensington who are not addicts. They deserve a neighborhood that is peaceful, free of the threat of stepping on a used needle and other consequences of living with heavy drug activity. 

It is not, however, the fault of the drug users in Kensington that the neighborhood is in its current state. The reason for the dire state of the neighborhood is the “War on Drugs.” The United States embraces a prohibitionist viewpoint toward drugs. The government pushes the idea that drugs are for the weak and that drugs must be criminalized or else people will fall down the rabbit hole of drug use. This is untrue. 

In Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalized, there has been no increase in  drug uaw. Instead, there has been a decrease in HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and HCV (hepatitis C Virus) transmission, and safer use of drugs is occurring. 

While the wave of gentrification in Philadelphia has come close to Kensington – in the area near the former El Campamento – the neighborhood itself has faced racist and class oppression and divestment. Kensington became an open-air drug market because of this divestment. Many neighborhoods in Philadelphia and the tri-state area (Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) force drug users to go to Kensington. 

The NIMBY (not in my back yard) forces in other Philadelphia neighborhoods attempt to push every addict, treatment facility, sober-living home, and methadone and buprenorphine clinic out. Every effort to help addicts is met with protests and petitions to remove them from the neighborhood.

In the early 2010s, organizations such as NO METHADONE Holmesburg-Mayfair, businesses and individuals came together to block a methadone and buprenorphine clinic from being opened in Philadelphia’s Holmesburg neighborhood. The opposition to clinics in Northeast Philadelphia meant that a methadone user needs to travel fairly far to get to a clinic, making it easier to go to Kensington for a fix than to travel to other parts of Philadelphia to get a methadone dose. 

Multiple barriers to treatment

In 2014, The Healing Way Behavioral Health Drug and Alcohol Center opened despite opposition from politicians and the NIMBY forces. That said, even though there are now more clinics in Northeast Philadelphia, barriers to getting treatment remain: namely, money and the ability to afford to go to a clinic or other treatment facility. Many drug users don’t even have government-provided insurance.

In 2021, forces seeking action for Kensington gathered to demand that Mayor Jim Kenney come w to see how previous approaches to handling the drug crisis failed. Activist Brooke Feldman led with the statement that addicts in Kensington were just as loved and just as needed as other residents of Kensington. For the first time, addicts and harm reductionists came together with resident organizations to fight for improvements to Kensington.

But the Mayor, in his final term, didn’t care.

This is where the demand for reparations for Kensington comes from. When a neighborhood is so abandoned, so left to chaos the way that Kensington is, reparations are absolutely necessary. These reparations must go to the most oppressed of our class. Those who would bulldoze their way through to gentrify Kensington must not get the funds, or else addicts – homeless or not – will go to some other section of the city and be in danger elsewhere.

A program to address the crisis

No one person – not this writer or anyone else individually – can say  with authority what the Kensington section of Philadelphia needs, but we can come together to discuss potential ideas for helping this forlorn neighborhood get out of the grip of drugs. Here are a few suggestions – which could serve as community demands – for the neighborhood:

  1. Expand publicly funded housing. With homelessness being one of the key problems in Kensington, this obvious suggestion comes in light of the fact that drug users cannot get into public housing because the capitalist state declares it is illegal to be a drug user and live in public housing.
  2. Expand health insurance along with state and county funding for drug addiction and mental illness treatment. The problem facing addicts who want recovery in Kensington is the lack of affordable mental health and addiction treatment care. The state, surrounding counties, and Philadelphia itself have limited funds to put people into treatment, and the beds available to Medicaid or self-pay patients are limited. By expanding health insurance and funding for treatment programs, one barrier to treatment and self-improvement will be lessened.
  3. Invest in educating the community on the nature of addiction. Addiction tends to be seen as a choice, but people don’t choose addiction any more than someone chooses diabetes. By showing the neighborhood residents how addiction truly affects addicts, bridges can be built based on empathy and mutual understanding.
  4. Expansion of methadone and buprenorphine access and a widening of what “Medication Assisted Treatment” is. While not diminishing the usefulness of other paths of recovery (such as abstinence-only 12-step programs), it can be stated that methadone, and to a lesser extent buprenorphine, tremendously improve the lives of people living with addiction.  

When using methadone and buprenorphine, addicts seroconvert; that is, contract  and develop HIV disease, to a lesser extent than non-MAT users. Methadone treatment must undergo liberalization in order to be as helpful to as many people as possible. (workers.org/2022/08/66010/). 

The most basic form of liberalization is permitting pharmacists to dispense methadone in the way as much of the world. The U.S. needs to follow Canada’s example and authorize additional MAT systems. Not everyone responds to methadone or buprenorphine treatment, as no one shoe size fits all. 

  1. Develop community-based safe consumption sites. The idea of a safe consumption site – Safehouse Philadelphia – was defeated after being attacked by both the NIMBYs in South Philadelphia and by the Trump Administration. Safehouse had a major flaw: it lacked community support. A new effort to open several safe consumption sites in Philadelphia, including Kensington, is sorely needed. With community buy-in, these sites are guaranteed to save lives. There would be a drop in overdose deaths in bathrooms and use of drugs on public transit or on the street.  People would have a place to go to use drugs safely and get treatment if they so desire.

‘We are workers!’

These are only a few steps that can – and should – be implemented. 

Kensington was this writer’s old stomping ground before getting clean. The situation on the ground can be intimidating, challenging and scary. Addicts need to be embraced by the working class, because we are working class people.  For Kensington to improve, reparations need to be given; some or perhaps all of the funds should be used to fight the drug and overdose epidemics. 

The “war on drugs” is a failure.  What must be considered is a humane “war on addiction” instead. To exorcize the metaphorical demon of drug addiction, we need to approach this goal with funding, community activism, community buy-in and the political will of the working class to fight this struggle.

Princess Harmony

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Princess Harmony
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