Prevention Point Philadelphia has opened a year-round respite at its center in Kensington as a direct response to the City of Philadelphia’s decision to close down and clean up encampments along the Gurney Street Corridor.
The organization has been doing winter respite for the past three years, but as of July 31 its doors are open year-round. The harm-reduction services organization has been active in the neighborhood since 1992, working to provide low-barrier services to individuals dealing with injection drug use, homelessness and poverty. Programming includes a needle exchange, free meals, ID and mail services and housing management.
On July 31, cleanups began on Gurney Street as per the city’s agreement with Conrail, the railroad company that owns the property along the train tracks. The strip has long been used as an informal shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness and the effects of drug addiction.
We spoke with housing coordinator Katie Perch, and housing case manager Megan Abrams from Prevention Point about their organization’s efforts to find beds and enhance resources for individuals across the city.
Prevention Point is located on Kensington Avenue, near Cambria Street and the Somerset stop of the Market-Frankford Line. You’re right in the middle of the hub of drug activity happening in Kensington. How does your location impact the ability to provide services?
Megan Abrams: We are kind of in a central location for the population that we’re serving, so it makes sense. I think a lot of other services in the city involve people having to travel out of a neighborhood that they’re in, and the fact that we can be right, we’re there, makes it another lower barrier for accessing services.
Katie Perch: This neighborhood is unfortunately known as the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast, so, like Megan mentions, this is where folks are coming and it can be very difficult for folks to get out of this neighborhood for services. So it’s important that we be where the people are. That’s part of the low-threshold model.
Can you explain the neighborhood’s relationship with Gurney Street?
KP: What has commonly been called the Gurney Street Encampment, I think it has many other names, has long existed in this neighborhood. There’s a stretch of train tracks that runs below street-level along Gurney Street on Gurney and Indiana on the south side, and Tusculum on the north side and the bridges that run over there. Underneath those bridges have long been an area where people have lived, where people have used and engaged in other behaviors that come with homelessness and injection drug-use.
There’s been several attempts in the past to try and clear out or clean up the space in some way and none of them have had any permanency. Obviously people have continued to come back, and the city and Conrail together have spent the past trying to figure out how to come up with a more permanent solution. And what they’ve come to is that they want to move everyone out of that space. They want to clear away all of the vegetation. The general appeal of the space is that it’s very hidden so you don’t get seen. They want to put up a lot of lighting and some more heavy-duty fencing to really try and keep people from coming back in. So, that’s the plan.
What is Prevention Point expecting to happen as people are moved out from the tracks?
KP: I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us in the service provider world definitely have concerns about what happens when we move people out of a space that they’ve long been using as a safe space, for many of them it is their home, and I think we’re trying to figure out how we can respectfully engage with people around this. And also recognize that when we take people from a very hidden space, and move them out of that, some of what they were doing might now be more public for a period of time. So that’s going to create some additional community tensions.
What measures is Prevention Point taking to address the Gurney Street cleanup?
KP: I think our theory is, we cannot, we cannot stop the city and Conrail from going in and doing what they feel like they need to do. But what we can do is advocate so that as many services as possible are offered to the individuals that are down there. Whether that’s drug treatment, housing, harm reduction supplies, just, whatever it might be. We want to make sure that it’s not just pushing people as if to say “get out” so they scatter and we lose our ability to engage with them. Also that people aren’t getting arrested for trespassing or drug use or all the behaviors that they’re doing down there. We want to give people an opportunity to have access to services.
MA: We do have an outreach team that is focused in the Kensington neighborhood and then very focused on the Gurney Street area that’s going in and trying to build relationships with people in the time period leading up to all the work that’s going to be done. Part of building that relationship is so we can stay in touch with people when they do get displaced so that we can make sure people know what services are available to them and have an easy way to access them, or as easy as possible.
We’ve also opened a year-round respite and that is to offer space, in a limited number, but to offer some space to people who are being displaced who do want to come into our respite, who maybe either don’t want to go to the city shelters, have had negative experiences in the past or even just the distance is too far. There isn’t another shelter in this neighborhood, so we’re responding to that.
How does the concentration of individuals seeking shelter on Gurney Street speak to the situation facing Philadelphia as a whole?
KP: I think the biggest issue is with the Gurney Street issue, specifically, but really with this system’s reaction in general is that you kind of have a funnel effect. Where, if you’ve got this many people up top who need services, the more specialized or high-level the service that person needs, gets, the narrower the opportunities become. So we don’t have enough treatment beds in this city, we don’t have enough housing opportunities for people who are using drugs, we don’t have enough support networks for those folks.
So the ideal would be that at the end of the day, that the resources would match the need. And right now they don’t. And that’s true across the city, it’s not just a Gurney Street thing. And I think that’s really important to highlight, is that this is one piece of a much larger issue that we’re dealing with right now in terms of homelessness and drug use. Until we really look at that bigger picture of what the need is and where we’re not meeting it, we’re going to keep having more situations like Gurney Street. They’re just going to keep happening.
-Photo and text by Brianna Spause.