SEPTA is testing a new way to help people struggling with addiction on the system

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Outreach worker Kenneth Harris engages with a client outside Somerset Station. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Outreach worker Kenneth Harris engages with a client outside Somerset Station. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

If you take SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line to Somerset Station and exit onto Kensington Avenue, you might run into someone like Kenneth Harris.

He’s an outreach specialist for Merakey, a social services agency that recently partnered with the authority to help people struggling with homelessness and addiction who take refuge in the transit system.

“I hate that somebody is stuck in that rut,” said Harris. “Active addiction is a horrible situation and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

New structures at the Somerset station aim to keep people from loitering at the exits and give riders a clear path. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Somerset Station sits in the heart of the city’s opioid crisis, and it’s a spot Harris seems to know well. It’s where he once sold drugs and struggled with addiction. He has since left that life behind for recovery and works to help others do the same.

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“If they don’t already know me and know my story, I’m freely giving them my story,” said Harris. “And they’re seeing me standing here making a difference and doing something different. Once upon a time, I stood here and sold works. I stood here and I was the problem.”

Now Harris might be part of a solution, thanks to a new initiative from SEPTA called SCOPE, which stands for Safety, Cleaning, Ownership, Partnership, and Engagement. Ken Divers, assistant director of transportation for SEPTA, oversees the program and said the emphasis is on helping people, rather than policing them.

Assistant Director of Transportation Ken Divers leads the vulnerable population task force at SEPTA. He says a combination of increased security and outreach is working to get people experiencing homelessness and addiction off the streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It’s a plan that can fix the problem … This is a sustainable plan that has a lasting effect,” said Divers.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a surge of people seeking respite on the SEPTA system over the past year. Some stations in particular, including Somerset, became gathering spots for what the authority calls the “vulnerable population.”

SEPTA workers power wash Allegheny Station on Kensington Avenue. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Code of conduct violations, which include blocking passageways, lying on seats or floors, and sitting on steps, almost doubled in just three months from 1,989 in November 2020 to 3,291 in January 2021, SEPTA reported.

In January, loitering increased by more than 40% compared to the same month last year. And there were 2,357 well-being checks, which includes police interactions with people who are not conscious or alert. That’s more than four times the number in January 2020.

Workers that provide social services from Merakey, the PAD (Police Assisted Diversion) program, and Homeless Outreach meet every Tuesday in front of their offices on Allegheny Avenue in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The severity of the issue was highlighted in March when SEPTA temporarily closed Somerset Station for repairs and upgrades after elevators there were damaged by urine and needles.

This was an opportunity for SEPTA to test SCOPE.

Somerset Station has been long known as a place where people gather for shelter and drug use and the pandemic only exacerbated the situation.

Rider Carlos Harmon said the conditions were so bad that “even though this is vital for people to get places… you’re just like, ‘Aww, but I really don’t want to use this stop.’”

Workers paint an exit at Somerset station. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

After a two-week closure, Somerset reopened not only with upgrades and elevator fixes, but SEPTA police officers and social workers to respond to people in need of drug treatment or housing without unnecessary arrests.

This is a key piece of the campaign, said Divers.

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“Before, our business was to police the vulnerable population off our system,” said Divers. “Well, studies have shown that policing don’t work. What works is a human approach.”

A worker uses a leaf blower to move trash onto the tracks at Allegheny SEPTA station. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Now, more than a month after reopening, riders at Somerset Station can climb clear steps and breeze through turnstiles to a nearly empty platform. In the week ending May 22, SEPTA reported that it had referred eight people to services. However, the authority did not provide how many of them actually went on to receive some sort of substance abuse treatment.

Anthony Miller, a Kensington resident who works with the New Kensington CDC, said he uses the station about once or twice a week. He remarked that it is “cleaner than I’ve ever seen it.”

Social worker Sophia Carabba (left) rides the elevated train with SEPTA Officer Alexander Bires (right) as they work to provide services to people experiencing homelessness on the streets of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Somerset Station became a point of pride for SEPTA, so much so that SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards told Philadelphia City Council it is the authority’s “model” during a hearing.

“We want all of our stations to look like Somerset,” said Richards. “And I don’t know if any other GM has ever been able to relay that message before, but I’m telling you, I’m proud to be the first.”

SEPTA hopes to replicate these results system-wide, starting with stations near Somerset.  Workers are currently making upgrades to Allegheny Station and Huntingdon is next.

Social workers Amear Mitchell (left) and Sophia Carabba (right) walk Kensington Avenue offering services to people experiencing homelessness and substance abuse disorder on the streets of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“The SCOPE campaign deals with the entire service area, our entire organization, to address this issue,” said Divers, “because it’s just not isolated to Kensington.”

The project has also led to increased community engagement in the area.

A group of Kensington community members demanded transparency and involvement in the process of improving and reopening Somerset Station. The group has met regularly with SEPTA ever since to discuss the authority’s work in the neighborhood.

Tents pitched near Somerset Station in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Eduardo Esquivel, president of the Kensington Neighborhood Association, said SEPTA’s response to residents has been better than he expected and its new effort at the stations seems to be working so far.

However, he said Kensington residents need safer and cleaner public spaces beyond the transit stations. The root causes of homelessness and addiction, amid a booming illegal drug market, are much larger issues for the city to reckon with.

Looking out at the Philadelphia skyline from the Allegheny SEPTA station in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It seems like we might have our train stations back,” said Esquivel. “I still don’t have my parks back. I still can’t walk down the street. I still have my neighbors and myself facing violence on the streets.”

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