While waiting for a bus in the city’s Fishtown neighborhood, a panhandler with a sign asked if he could borrow my phone so he could send a text home. His homemade sign read: “Need to get home to the Delaware Beaches.” 

Despite a concern that he’d abscond with the goods, I watched as he thumbed out a text and then handed the phone back to me with the request that I not answer any calls from his mother. A little later I read what he wrote:

Hey ma, it’s Robert. I just got to Philly and am staying away from Kensington. Making my way down to Bear. Hoping they have room at Refuge. I will call later somehow. This is a random person phone so I won’t be with them. I love you guys and am being good. Talk later. 

The mother called back but I did not answer. Two days later I got a text from her asking me to please tell her where I last saw her son. Her message reeked of panic and desperation, so I told her what I knew. Of course, I was not surprised that “Robert” hadn’t made it home yet. It was plainly obvious that his resolve to avoid Kensington had failed.

READ MORE — Thom Nickels: An interview with Dorothy Ernest

Kensington, of course, is where the addicted homeless flock en masse as if on pilgrimage. They come from every state in the Union, male and female (but mostly male), many of them carrying their lives in knapsacks (which are often eventually stolen). They stake out panhandling spots on highways, or linger in front of Wawas or 7-Elevens.

Only ten years ago, it was unusual to see women panhandling. Today, women work the streets alongside men. It’s no secret that most of them “date” on the side. The word “date” — rather than “prostitute” — has a benign ring to it, and even suggests a touch of romance.

Earlier this year, I had frequent conversations with Elvis and Nicole, two good-looking people eager to share their stories about panhandling in different parts of the country. Homeless couples addicted to drugs rarely seem to stay together but Elvis and Nicole claimed they’d been faithful to one another for years. In my neighborhood I’d often see Elvis sitting next to a tree or waiting behind a bush while Nicole, in a pair of short-shorts, her blonde hair done up vintage Hollywood style (think Zsa Zsa Gabor), wiggle-walked in the middle of traffic flashing her homeless sign. Elvis was always on guard in case anyone tried to abduct her.

“Women make more money panhandling than men,” Elvis told me. Apparently, this is true even without the promise of a date, although it prompts me to wonder: are attractive female panhandlers the homeless equivalent (“look but don’t touch”) to pole dancers at Delilah’s Den?

Some lefty homeless “experts” would have you believe that only a small portion of the homeless you see today in American cities are homeless due to drug addiction. Most of the studies they cite were done nearly a decade ago, when the drug scene on the street was quite different than today. Today’s homeless, the ones you see on the streets of Philadelphia, are not homeless the way a family struck by intense poverty or a natural disaster becomes homeless. They are homeless due to addiction (and occasionally mental illness). And they are incorrigibly homeless in the sense that drugs often prevent them from taking advantage of city and state services that might help them find their way to a better life.

In other words, they like the freedom of life on the street. As so many addicts have told me over the years, “There are rules in shelters. When I need my stuff, I want to be able to go into Kensington at any day, any hour.”

[T]hey are incorrigibly homeless in the sense that drugs often prevent them from taking advantage of city and state services that might help them find their way to a better life.

P2P is a low price methamphetamine filled with toxic chemicals and contaminants. Currently the hot drug on the street, it surfaced in 2009, as an outgrowth and enhancement of ephedrine meth, which damaged people at a much slower rate. P2P creates what experts call a “cerebral catastrophe” in the user. It also damages the brain at a very rapid rate, causing mental illness, long-term psychosis, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders. 

The effects of P2P can last long after one has stopped using the drug. In other words, once you commit to using P2P, you’re often bound for life. P2P users are anti-social and hostile, have an inability to laugh or smile and lack the ability to communicate or hold a conversation. Users think nothing of sleeping on sidewalks or in store entranceways.

P2P has radically changed the homeless landscape.

These P2P people constitute the bulk of homeless people in Philadelphia, and they inhabit a world far beyond the city’s vast array of outreach services to the homeless. Users of the drug are not likely to have the mental focus to fill out applications for housing, apply for social services, or even tolerate the rules and regulations of a shelter. P2P is pure irrational rocket propulsion fuel, turning human beings into a kind of person I have never seen before.  

The Atlantic Magazine, which often gets things wrong, recently offered a good spin on the new meth:

“If you spend time among meth users, you’ll notice certain habits and tics: fixations on flashlights, for instance, and on bicycles, which are endlessly disassembled and assembled again. Hoodies are everywhere. The hoodie is versatile — cheap, warm, functional. But as opioids, then meth, spread across America, the hoodie also became, for many, a hiding place from a harsh world.”

READ MORE — Kyle Sammin: Parkway homeless encampments shows a city sliding backwards

One must not forget drug-induced paranoia and hallucinatory images.

One day while returning from Temple Dental in North Philadelphia on the Market-Frankford El, I was confronted by a man — the marks of drug usage clearly evident on his face — who thought I was filming him with my phone as I sat reading a text from a friend. “You don’t want to know what I would do to you if I found out that you were filming me,” he said. When I told him to relax, that I was not filming him and would never do such a thing, he kept explaining what he would do to me had I been recording him. His “What I Would Do To You List” went on for a good six minutes. 

The man was obviously P2P-impaired. 

“The P2P method offered traffickers one huge advantage: The chemicals that could be used to make it were also used in a wide array of industries — among them racing fuel, tanning, gold mining, perfume, and photography. Law enforcement couldn’t restrict all these chemicals the way it had with ephedrine, not without damaging legitimate sectors of the economy,” The Atlantic concluded. 

I take the Market-Frankford El a lot. On the weekends, it is crammed with the homeless, some sleeping or lost in some drugged-out alternate universe. In those train cars, which have little or no air conditioning, one sometimes notices a collective human stench. Okay, no big deal. As a city resident you learn to bite your lower lip and deal with it. Philadelphia is about urban grit, after all, and if you don’t like it, you can always move to Idaho Falls or Salt Lake. 

The problem is, drugs like P2P can work up hallucinatory and paranoid states of mind in a random passenger sitting ten or twenty seats away from you. Minding your own business is no guarantee that you won’t fall under their lens and be “seen” as someone who needs to be confronted, much the way I was by the man in the El who thought that I was filming him.  

Minding your own business is no guarantee that you won’t fall under their lens and be “seen” as someone who needs to be confronted …

When the Office of Homeless Services (OHS) in March 2022 announced that the City of Philadelphia had been awarded $36,381,810 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for 2,651 new and existing homeless housing units, my first thought was that the real, visible homeless in the city — the drug addicted homeless or P2P people, would never benefit from this money unless they did the seemingly impossible: free themselves from the demon grip of meth. 

The HUD grant, of course, will do little to elevate this most visible form of homelessness — the drugged-out sleepers on the El and on city sidewalks or the thousands of panhandlers looking for their next fix. Only those addicts who have committed themselves to a life of sobriety and are now ready to rejoin society will reap the benefits.

In the meantime, what does the city do about the addicted hordes flocking into Kensington everyday from every state in the Union?    

With a 90% success rate, Supportive Housing is an evidence-based approach that prevents a return to homelessness,” the city’s website declares. 

Except, of course, in those cases where the thousands of ‘Roberts’ of the city can’t see the benefit of the Delaware Beaches because of the persistent, obsessive lure of Kensington.

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, Frontpage Magazine and the Philadelphia Irish Edition. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” “Death at Dawn: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” will be published later this year.

3 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: The new homelessness poses deeper challenges”

  1. But as we know from the gun debate- bans never work because people will just get their hands on the goods illegally. So I guess that means we can’t ban drugs like P2P… Oh well.

    1. I don’t see the analogy to guns particularly. Prohibitions never halt traffic, they just increase the spread in price between manufacture and consumer and move the traffic to a black-market without tort protections.
      Likewise, subsidizing dependent living normalizes it–at best, and turns a problem into a boondoggle.
      While cooperative (or even collective) actions can be palliative, the roots of the problem lie elsewhere. Addictions are triggered by stress and despair and an immediate need to escape. Thereafter they are a feedback loop creating their own stress and despair. The Covid lockdowns, the illegality of sub-minimum wage work, the formation of society into a compliant mass are the current stressors driving the marginally sane to self-medicate.
      Rescuing the homeless caught by addictions needs a holistic dedication to their personal circumstance and a customized clearing of the path out of the feedback loop. I’m frightened by what you and the Atlantic describe as immediate brain damage caused by P2P. The price spread between manufacture (super cheap and sloppy) and consumption has to be made much higher than safer escape routes. That most certainly involves policing the meth labs with cops shielded against corruption somehow.

  2. The HUD money will go into what’s his names pocket – Kenny? Philadelphia officials are like junkies with money – they blow it as fast as they can and then it’s gone. That money could buy /build poor military veterans mini houses and help maintain them. It could help the elderly with large single story structures with aides to check in bbn on them. It could be used to part time pay many single (i.e. no chikdren) workers willing to help re build homes for homeless parents with children, then get the assistance buying their own homes. JAIL the JUNKIES.!!!!! They are breaking the law obtaining illegal substances and loitering and littering and trespassing. Not out of mean- ness but compassion and forced rehab. Current molly coddle programs dont work. Then, after three years of rehab and training, ship them home cleaned up or to the furthest reaches of Alaska where no bears will supply drugs.

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