Philly outreach presence scales down as cleanup of Conrail drug haven continues

 The outreach trailer at A and Tusculum Streets that temporarily closed on Thursday. (Joel Wolfram / WHYY)

The outreach trailer at A and Tusculum Streets that temporarily closed on Thursday. (Joel Wolfram / WHYY)

As work progressed on the cleanup of the Conrail tracks frequented by heroin users in Philadelphia’s Kensington and Fairhill neighborhoods on Thursday, the city was working out a kink in the plan to keep an outreach station running throughout the project.

Residents who live along the sunken stretch of railroad tracks watched in awe as machines clamped onto trees and cut them out of the ground. One minute there was a grove on the corner of Mascher Street, and the next it was gone — exposing mounds of trash on the slope.

This clear-cutting of trees and brush is the first stage of the cleanup work, and by the fourth day of the cleanup it had gotten as far as that corner on Mascher Street. That’s just a block away from the infamous settlement of heroin users known as “El Campamento.”

But there were much fewer outreach workers on the scene than on the first day of the cleanup. While the city and its partner organizations had planned to keep the bulk of their tents and trailers open for the only first three days, the outreach trailer at A Street and Tusculum Street was supposed to stay open for the duration of the cleanup. On Thursday, however, it temporarily closed.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Joanna Otero-Cruz of the city managing director’s office said that the trailer at A and Tusculum had to close so workers could transport someone who was seeking help. Right now, she said, it doesn’t have enough staff to be able to stay open when that happens.

“We are regrouping to ensure we can build capacity so that if individuals are transported we don’t have to shut it down,” she said.

Still, help was available for drug users. Shawn Pearson was waiting outside a outreach van parked near Mascher Street.

Pearson, 44, said he went down to the tracks to get high every day until about a week ago. “Since 1994 I’ve been down here, on and off,” Pearson said. “Only thing that gives me a break is going to jail.”

With so many police officers around for the cleanup, he said it became too took risky to keep going down there. Now he’s hoping to get into detox.

“I don’t like the other two options I have: jail and death,” Pearson said. “The next bag could be the [overdose] bag. My next encounter with the police could be the next jail sentence”

Otero-Cruz said the city would find a way to keep the outreach trailer at A and Tusculum open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. everyday.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal