William Anderson Payne is under the bridge at Second and Indiana avenues. He stands beside freight tracks in a makeshift bedroom. The bed has risers and a headboard. Someone has managed to pull a garden hose under the bridge. Water gushes from the hose and under it lies old toothbrushes and needles made muddy in the dirt.
“It’s someone’s house,” says Payne as he turns his back and empties light brown powder into a metal cooker used to heat and mix intravenous drugs. “I’m just waking up. Y’all gotta let me get my shot up, get my drugs in my first.”
He tells us we make him nervous and periodically asks us if we’re cops. After his shot he calms down.
Payne lives on the street and spends most of his nights in an abandoned van. Some nights he will sign up for a bed at the RHD Ridge Center, a homeless shelter on Broad Street and Ridge Avenue.
“They give you a bed but if you stay out and don’t go in when you’re supposed to they give your bed to someone else,” he says.
Payne is the youngest of 14 children. All of his siblings are female. He says he could stay with them but he chooses not to.
“I’m my own man. I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do when I’m gonna do it,” he says. He plans on visiting one of his sisters in Massachusetts in a few weeks. His favorite place to visit is Denver. He doesn’t mind the cold.
When we tell Payne we’re journalists, he asks us if we help people get housing. He looks disappointed when we say no.
“If you don’t have kids you don’t get housing, you gotta have someone that lives with you. Things are easier for women, but I don’t know why. If you’re a man living in Philadelphia, it’s hard to get housing,” he says.
The cities homeless shelters vary. Some offer beds in large, overcrowded rooms and others offer individual rooms. Some offer food and other resources and some do not. Some are free and some are not.
Mindy Carino, 30, recently injured her ankle and she hobbles up the steep metal steps to her third-floor room in an abandoned warehouse near Seconnd and Indiana avenues.
“Welcome to the Carino residence,” says her husband Bernardo, 27. The two have been married for eight years and together for 10. They have a 7-year-old son who lives with Mindy’s parents in upstate Pennsylvania. They haven’t seen him for years and haven’t spoken to him since Mindy’s birthday in August.
After we tackle the stairs, we make our way through a room littered with trash. The windows are busted out. There is a stench of urine.
“One of the couples here uses this room as a bathroom. We use the roof,” says Mindy.
The warehouse is home to Mindy and Bernardo and another couple, who live in the same room. A man lives on the first floor and surrounds his belongings with hanging bed sheets because the building is missing a wall. Mindy says the man who lives on the third floor has been here the longest. The couple keeps out of his way and is sure not to invite too many people over. If word gets out that people stay in the abandoned warehouse, the city will kick them all out.
“Usually we call [ the License and Inspections office] and they come down, check out the house, and if there are people [living] in it they call us if it looks dangerous and they’ll clean it out and seal it,” says Officer Albert Cruz of the 25th Police District. “Sometimes they break in again or move on.”
In October, Mindy suffered from kidney failure and spent time in the hospital. Afterward, the hospital arranged for the couple to be put up in a boarding house on 22nd and Bishop Street. They were given their own room and three meals a day. The hospital paid the $900 monthly fee. The couple couldn’t stand the house, so they moved out.
“The people [who lived there] would be up all night and we didn’t feel safe,” says Bernardo. They said each time they left they worried about their belongings, which are now in neatly stacked boxes in the corner of the room they share with the other couple. For the most part, the two couples look out for each other.
“If one of us is sick, the other one will usually give us what we need to get better,” says Mindy. A box of syringes is tucked in the opposing corner.
To get to their apartment, the couple must maneuver through a small hole ripped through a metal fence and climb over broken toys, shoes and other trash that piles up in the warehouse yard. This is a hard feat for Mindy, whose sprain leaves her walking with a wrapped ankle and one crutch she carries under her right arm. Still, it is illegal for the couple and the warehouses other residents to be living there. Residents must be careful to keep their home secret, for fear of being kicked out and back on the streets or in a bad shelter.
“First thing in the morning is when you come down and see the zombies,” says Officer Cruz. He has been with the district for 13 years.
“Heroin is a drug that when people get addicted they need it in the morning,” he says. He tells us the area around Third and Indiana avenues dies down after five or six in the evening.
“I’ve arrested doctors, lawyers and psychologists,” says Cruz of the customers coming to Fairhill for heroin and other illegal narcotics. He says he put a pharmacist from Jefferson Hospital in jail a few times who would buy a bag of heroin a day before work.
“I think people who are homeless and out on the streets are gonna use the [train] tracks,” he says. The tracks, which are located at a lower ground level than the street, are owned by Amtrak, Conrail and CSX Transportation.
We meet William Anderson Payne under the bridge on the tracks. He’s got a light blue wax baggie in his hand and a needle with an orange cap. “I don’t stay down here too long because the cops come,” says Payne. Rightfully so. The tracks are a hot bed for illegal activity.
Syringes, capped and uncapped, are strewn along the tracks for miles. A hidden alcove between the street and the tracks is used as a “shooting gallery,” a place where heroin users can tie up and nod off. Here, needles are left on cinder blocks for the next visit. Wax baggies are shredded and litter the ground. Rubber bands are snapped off the upper arm and left here to die.
Payne is fixing up a shot of heroin when we meet him. He mixes the brown powder in a cooker the size of a bottle cap. He stands in a makeshift house with a few beds and a hose with running water. He says it’s someone’s home.
Cruz is not surprised. “Amtrak and L&I tore [some homes] down, but they [the people] just come back and build it up again,” he says of the illegal structures on the tracks.
“We’ve been getting a lot of reports of people being jumped back there,” says Yaya Liem, a syringe exchange coordinator at Prevention Point. “[You need to] be careful if you’re going around the tracks by yourself, even during the day.”
Cruz says many of these complaints go unreported. “A junkie is not gonna come to the police and say, ‘Yeah I was shooting up and I got robbed,’” he says.
Mindy and Bernardo Carino didn’t. The couple, who lives close by in an abandoned warehouse, were robbed a few weeks ago. Mindy says women usually carry drugs on their person because they are less likely to be searched. She had a few bags of heroin and $666 in cash from her monthly disability check. She wasn’t letting go during the robbery.
“He literally was dragging me, pulling at my purse,” she says. The man left without the purse, and instead took the book bag Mindy was carrying. In it were some dirty clothes and a psychology book she was reading titled. A few weeks days later, the couple found the book bag on the street. The clothes were still in it, but the book was gone.
“A lot of the people down there are dangerous,” she says, “We don’t even really go down there.” Mindy says she used to carry a rusted saw in her pant leg for protection.
The police force is equipped with officers on dirt bikes to patrol the tracks. “We’ve always tried to flood as many police down here as we can without neglecting other neighborhoods,” he says.
Fencing was put around the tracks earlier this year after one weekend ended in a quadruple homicide. “It was a drug war,” says Cruz.
In a few hours four people were dead. It began on a Friday and ended on a Sunday, he says of the shoot-out.
“They were shooting [people] on the corners and using the tracks as means to escape,” Cruz explains.
The officers say one of the shooters was eventually apprehended. He was found on the tracks by use of police dogs and helicopters. The others are still at large.
Read the Spanish version of the story here.