Volunteers bring Christmas to Kensington corner struggling with homelessness, addiction

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Asteria Vives, head of Home Quarters and Friends, sings carols at the Emerald Street and Lehigh underpass, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Asteria Vives, head of Home Quarters and Friends, sings carols at the Emerald Street and Lehigh underpass, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A group of volunteers brought a mobile Christmas celebration to people who are homeless and living in addiction in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood Wednesday night.

The volunteers from Home Quarters and Friends, a group that works to help drug users get off the streets, started on a corner near the railroad tracks where the city and Conrail cleared out an encampment of homeless heroin users this summer. 

Led by Asteria Vives, the group offered warm beverages to the small groups of people on the street, and lyric sheets to anyone who wanted to join them in singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” and other holiday favorites.

“You’re not outsiders, we’re here for you,” Vives said, her voice projecting over a loudspeaker.

Some who showed up were most interested in the bags of donated clothing the volunteers were giving away.

Third- through fifth-graders from the Lenfest Center girls club collected items for the needy and handed them out at Second and Indiana streets in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Vives has been coordinating the celebration for the past few years. This year, the group made an extra stop. Since the nearby encampment was cleared out, neighborhood residents say homeless heroin users are crowding into new refuges in greater numbers than before.

“You look under the bridge at Kensington and Lehigh, Emerald and Lehigh, they’re just two small pop-up little tent cities,” said Dennis Payne. “And there’s a lot more in the side streets and the alleys. I mean, we now kind of magnified the problem.”

The tent city under the Emerald Street bridge, about a 5-minute drive away, was the volunteers’ next destination. The sidewalk there was jammed end to end with mattresses and makeshift tents for dozens of people taking shelter.

Cynthia Rivera and others living in the Emerald Street tunnel crowded around tables stacked with toothpaste, water, and candy canes.

“I didn’t think I was even going to sing,” Rivera said. “If you only knew my situation, of course I wouldn’t be singing in my situation. But, because of them, I forgot for a couple of minutes what I’m going through.”

The city announced Thursday that more help is on the way for people who are homeless and addicted to drugs in Kensington. It plans to send a new mobile outreach van to Emerald Street and other sites to help people get into treatment. City officials are also working to find a site for a new shelter with 30 beds.

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