Parker administration clears its first homeless encampment in Kensington

Authorities clear a homeless encampment Wednesday, May 9, on Kensington Avenue in Kensington.
Stephen Knight

Law enforcement, sanitation workers and other city employees cleared a homeless encampment Wednesday morning in Kensington – the first such sweep under Mayor Cherelle Parker.

Officials from her administration said there were no major incidents or injuries resulting from the operation, which Parker’s team has described as an “encampment resolution.” No one was arrested, according to authorities.

By late Wednesday afternoon, 59 people in the area had accepted offers of housing and treatment, Parker administration officials told Metro. That tally includes nearly 30 who outreach workers successfully engaged in the days and weeks leading up to the sweep.

“Wherever they are, in terms of inpatient or whatever it is, they are now getting that, and they are not here on the cold street in the rain like we had this morning,” said Adam Geer, Philadelphia’s chief public safety director, as crews were wrapping up. “So I think that’s a tremendous success.”

“These are some of the cleanest sidewalks this morning here in Philadelphia,” he added.

Most of those living in the encampment had left before outreach workers arrived Monday, Geer said. Teams had been regularly visiting the site since the city posted a notice April 4 warning of the sweep.

Over the course of the month, the Parker administration said, homeless outreach workers spoke to about 75 people and documented six or seven tents along the two block stretch, on Kensington Avenue just south of the Market-Frankford Line’s Allegheny Station.

Hundreds of unsheltered individuals live in the neighborhood, long the center of Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic. The Office of Homeless Services’ annual Point-in-Count and data from outreach teams place estimates of Kensington’s homeless population anywhere from just under 300 to more than 650.

Authorities clear a homeless encampment Wednesday, May 9, on Kensington Avenue in Kensington.Stephen Knight

Even as police officers guarded the affected blocks, people continued to openly smoke and inject drugs nearby, including just around the corner on Allegheny Avenue.

By 9 a.m., there was little sign of the encampment, and cleaning crews had spread onto nearby streets. City officials had said the clearing would begin at 8:30 a.m., but the effort actually started much earlier.

Parker’s office had discouraged the media from covering the operation, raising privacy concerns and saying they wanted to “minimize distractions and interference.” Nonetheless, many members of the press, YouTubers and amateur journalists were at the scene.

Barricades blocked Kensington Avenue, and officers prevented drivers, neighborhood residents and reporters from accessing the commercial corridor.

“Maybe these businesses will reopen again,” one passerby, gesturing at the storefronts, said. “You just don’t know how long it will last.”

Geer said officials will monitor the 3000 and 3100 blocks of Kensington Avenue to make sure encampments do not reemerge, and city guidelines allow for tents set up less than 72 hours prior to be removed immediately without notice.

Chief Public Safety Director Adam Geer speaks to reporters Wednesday, May 8, at the site of the homeless encampment on Kensington Avenue.Stephen Knight

The Parker administration said the blocks were cleared because the encampment presented public health hazards and obstructed the sidewalk.

Treatment offers were voluntary, officials said, and municipal policy stipulates that the city store certain personal belongings recovered from the area for at least 30 days.

Representatives from the mayor’s office said removing the encampment was not part of Parker’s broader Kensington Community Revival strategy, unveiled last month and aimed at shutting down the neighborhood’s open air drug market.

But it was the most visible action her administration has taken in Kensington, and Geer said the operation aligned with the mayor’s vision “about returning, restoring our norms in our communities.”

Philadelphia’s chief public defender, Keisha Hudson, criticized Wednesday’s encampment clearing as a “return to draconian and ineffective crime and drug policies.” In a statement, she said the new mayoral administration has not communicated with the Defender Association about stepped-up enforcement in Kensington.

“Getting timely details about upcoming plans is critical for preparing our attorneys and social workers to serve what will undoubtedly be an uptick in cases stemming from the increased law enforcement activity,” Hudson added.

About 18% of those represented by public defenders each year in the city are from Kensington, the Defender Association said. The organization has put out its own plan for the neighborhood calling for increased treatment programs; more affordable housing; and employment opportunities.

Authorities clear a homeless encampment Wednesday, May 9, on Kensington Avenue in Kensington.Stephen Knight

Parker officials maintain that they are following long-standing local policies around homeless encampments. Similar procedures have been used to “resolve” at least 25 camps, including nine others in Kensington since 2017, according to the administration.

Most recently, last August, authorities removed tents from the 400 block of E. Somerset Street – a short walk from the site cleared Monday.