Effort underway to help Philly neighborhoods hit hard by opioids

 Volunteers clean up Hope Park in Philadelphia’s Kensington Section Thursday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Volunteers clean up Hope Park in Philadelphia’s Kensington Section Thursday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A notorious heroin encampment along the Conrail tracks in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood has drawn national attention — along with more focused efforts by police and nonprofits that help those who get high there.

While the long-awaited cleanup at the site known as “El Campamento” has been delayed, work is underway to spruce up the surrounding area.

On Thursday, volunteers spent the day painting doors and windows on vacant houses the city has boarded up to keep out squatters. They also cleared weeds, picked up used syringes and trash in Fairhill’s Hope Park.

“Actually not that bad with the needles,” said Daniel Ramos, holding up a red plastic biohazard container holding about 15 old needles. “Not that bad.”

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Ramos works for Philly 311. He grew up in this neighborhood and still goes to church here.

Hope Park was in worse shape a few years ago before residents started coming together to clean it, he said.

“There is hope for this park,” Ramos said. “There’s a lot of good people around here. They’re just scared … scared to come out.”

A collaboration between the city and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is trying to help empower residents here. It’s called “El Barrio Es Nuestro” or “The Neighborhood is Ours” in Spanish.

The effort includes cleanups like this one, as well as trainings in how to use the overdose-reversing medication naloxone.

The city has also been working to install new street lights, seal vacant homes, temporarily close streets for local children to play and step up police patrols.

“We’re here to stay. We want to do transformation, have a better quality of life,” said Joanna Otero-Cruz, the city’s deputy managing director for community services. “This is not just the summer.”

But is it enough? As the volunteers worked, longtime Kensington resident Dennis Payne pointed out the drug dealers posted on their corners right across the street from the park.

“We’re doing all this, cleaning up all this, but we’re just chasing people and giving that headache to somebody else,” said state Rep. Angel Cruz who had come by to give volunteers breakfast.

Cruz supports the controversial idea of opening a safe injection site here, a sanctioned place for users to shoot heroin under medical supervision with access to treatment programs.

“Make a site where you can help these people, and if they have to use the drugs to be there, to be able to take the treatment, so be it,” he said.

A city task force has recommended exploring the idea.

In the meantime, Payne and other residents are riding this new wave of action. What’s more, he’s hoping to create a new neighborhood watch program.

“All this is gonna change, I promise you that,” he said.

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