Philadelphia officials say they have finally reached a plan with Conrail to remove and clean up a haven for heroin users on the company’s railroad tracks in the Kensington-section of the city.
Much of the plan involves landscaping and construction to secure the half-mile stretch of tracks —clearing vegetation that conceals drug activities, repairing fencing, and putting rock piles under bridges to stop people from sheltering there. The city and Conrail will work together to clear hazardous waste that has accumulated for years at the trackside encampment, including hundreds of thousands of used needles.
But the bigger challenge may be in helping the drug addicts who have found a home at the tracks.
“This is not just cleaning up needles and cutting down trees,” said Mayor Jim Kenney at a Thursday morning press conference. “This is about human beings who are in the throes of addiction.”
The Conrail tracks have been a hotspot for drug use in Kensington going back decades. But some say that disturbing the camp opens a pandora’s box — if it isn’t done right, it could be harmful to the surrounding community and to the drug users.
Local councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez said the drug problem in the area around the tracks will get worse before it gets better. The cleanup could send the drug use at the site, which “for a long time has been contained,” out into the streets of the neighborhood, she said.
Harm reduction advocates also say that the community of drug users at the tracks gives addicts some protection — if they OD, there’s people around to revive them with Narcan or find help.
So the city is putting more resources toward housing and treatment for people at the tracks, including $250,000 of new funding toward supportive housing. The city’s outreach team recorded 28 homeless drug users at the Conrail site during its last count.
Prevention Point Philadelphia is working with the city to provide housing and treatment. The organization has 23 shelter beds set up specifically to help them. But Prevention Point’s executive director, Jose Benitez, said that even more resources are will be needed before drugs are eliminated from the area.
“You know we’ve got to remember this has been a 30-year problem down there,” said Benitez. “It’s not going to get solved in six months.”
Benitez said he and other groups helping people at the tracks will ask the city and Conrail to step up with more support as it is needed.
The city said the cleanup and construction projects would begin in the next few weeks.