Numerous homeless people are shown freely injecting drugs in the open and lying unconscious on streets littered with rubbish in recent camera footage from Philadelphia’s notorious Kensington neighbourhood.
The poor town has seen an increase in fatal drug overdoses, which has been made worse by the combination of the synthetic opioid fentanyl and the medication xylazine, which is used by veterinarians to sedate animals like horses and cattle. DEA officials once referred to the area as the “East Coast’s largest open-air drug market.”
The city’s health department has positioned mobile wound care trucks on Kensington Avenue and in other parts of Philadelphia with high rates of open drug use and addiction to halt the wave of infections linked to xylazine.
In extreme cases, the infection has advanced to the point where people end up permanently crippled and are likely to lose limbs due to the severity of the damage by the time the medics arrive.
“You can see just the body of individuals completely deteriorating before your eyes. They, you know, they’ll be missing flesh all the way down to the bone in some cases,” Michael McCarrick, the Chief Inspector for Philadelphia Police Regional Operations Command North, said.
The fatal outbreak has presented law enforcement with a number of difficulties. According to McCarrick, people who are addicted frequently refuse medical care because they are worried about going through painful withdrawals while in the hospital. Additionally, Naloxone, also marketed under the name Narcan, can revive a person who has overdosed on an opioid and reverse its effects. However, it has no effect on people who have taken the tranquillizer.
Josh Shapiro, the governor of Pennsylvania, instructed his team to add xylazine to the list of restricted substances in April. The Pennsylvania Controlled Substance, Drug, Device, and Cosmetics Act’s schedule three drug list is temporarily expanded by the notice of intent to include xylazine.
It is now illegal to possess the drug without the necessary licences, according to McCarrick, giving law enforcement another weapon to combat the issue. The decision also makes it easier to track the substance from licenced medical providers.
While the city’s outreach teams and organisations do a tremendous job addressing homelessness and drug use, Democratic Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents Pennsylvania’s first congressional district, claimed that some rules are preventing the city from making progress.
“We have the heroin is now mostly fentanyl. The fentanyl is mixed with xylazine which is tranq on the street. We see the open wounds and sores. So, the more we continue to allow that behaviour to happen, the worse it is for those folks that are in addiction. And so I would like to say, all right, you don’t want the services, but you have to move on from here. You have to either leave this spot that you’re in. Or you have to take the services necessary to get you help,” he said.
Allowing such behaviour to continue, in Squilla’s opinion, has a bad effect on other members of the community and exposes them to individuals committing small-time crimes like theft, defecating in public, and leaving needles out in the open.
“If we’re just going to clean up around a problem like we do on Kensington Avenue every day, then we allow the same behavior to happen. We got to constantly clean up every day. It looks good for a couple of hours, and then it’s back to how it looked before. We’re spending a lot of resources and money that’s not addressing the problem,” Squilla said.
“So, it’s like having a pig and putting lipstick on a pig. Still a pig. We’re not really dealing with the crisis at hand, which is the unhoused people, the opioid epidemic, the open-air drug markets, and the violent crime that comes with that.
Last week, the arrests of more than 170 people from a three-day operation that also resulted in the seizure of 27 weapons and drugs worth $1.4 million were announced by Philadelphia Mayor Jim and police enforcement officials.
“What’s happening in Kensington is unacceptable. A life lost to gun violence or an overdose is one too many and we cannot allow the continued operation of a drug market that exploits and endangers our residents,” Kenney said at the time.
Squilla acknowledged that the action was a start in the right direction, but he was concerned that a general lack of enforcement might allow problems with crime, homelessness, and drug use to continue.
“They arrested a lot of individuals. But what’s going to happen to those individuals? The individuals get arrested and then next month, they’re back on the street selling again. If that’s the case, then we’re not still addressing the problem. Right? So, I think we need a full collaborative effort,” he said.
McCarrick remembered problems in Kensington dating back to the late 1980s based on his personal experience. The area was a working-class neighbourhood at the time. There were some dismal places in the community, and some leftover drugs were still being used.
Following the crack epidemic a few years earlier, according to McCarrick, drugs began to play a larger role in local economies, boosting the wealth of disadvantaged communities.
“People on the block would all receive benefits from the sales on the block. It pays their bills. I mean, it really kept them afloat,” he said.
Drugs all of a sudden became much more profitable as the authorities began to notice the early indications of the heroin outbreak. Kensington experienced a considerable influx of people from outside the neighbourhood selling because it was more lucrative.
“Now you have the conflict between the organizations or the groups that were trying to sell this product in an area. And then with that conflict comes violence,” McCarrick added.
When the internet started to really take off in the 1990s, feuds that previously propagated through word of mouth found a new home online. Even now, information is being disseminated in this manner.
“If you Google right now, as tragic as it is, the best place to buy heroin in Philadelphia. Google tells you Kensington and Allegheny. Well, that’s a challenge, right? Because if you have somebody who is addicted or looking right, they’re being directed to a community based on a search,” McCarrick said.
Zero-tolerance measures from law enforcement in the past increased the danger and accountability of open drug use or small-time criminal activity. Today, however, authorities are aiming to strike a balance between traditional methods and modern ones that allow for figuring out what is causing the addiction and working to find these people’s placement and resources.
“Now the challenge becomes, you have this population that you’re trying to get the services to. You got this population you’re trying to hold accountable for their actions. You’re trying to make arrests. You’re trying to get the drugs off the street. And it’s just the tide keeps pushing against each other. And in the middle, we’re standing trying to balance,” McCarrick said.
He pointed out that when law enforcement works to determine how to best represent the community and ensure that no one person’s rights take precedence over those of another, the issue becomes more complicated. The fact that the police estimate that 15% of the local population is actually homeless just serves to exacerbate the problem. The others are drug addicts who have chosen or are forced to live on the streets due to their drug addictions.
“We want them to get help,” McCarrick said. “But if they refuse to take the help, how long does that cycle continue? So, there’s that shift I’ve seen in the time I was here and even in the time I left. The wave, the size of the population, the homeless-addicted population significantly increased.”
Many people who see these persons on the street want to assist them. They frequently give out clothing and food. But McCarrick noted that these people frequently get lost. Although they provide assistance in one form, they ultimately harm the populations of homeless and drug addicts by giving them the means to remain in place rather than accept treatment, placement, or housing from the city programmes that are already in place.
“They can get their drugs. They can get food. They can get shelter. They don’t have to leave. And that’s through discussion with the population. They say I don’t have to go anywhere. I don’t have to return home to the townships or the cities where I come from. I can just stay here. I get everything I need. So that has been a significant shift,” McCarrick said.