Richard, a forty-something homeless, drug-addicted divorced father of three, lives in a tent in a wooded area by the Delaware River. To see him in the local Wawa where he goes every morning for coffee, you wouldn’t peg him as homeless. Richard is pretty much a clean-freak with a penchant for style: slim dark trousers, dark buckle shoes or boots with high heels — if he can find a pair in nearby dumpsters — and dancer-type V-neck stretch pullovers. He wears his long thick hair in a short ponytail but he sometimes lets it fall free. 

Richard’s been living in the woods near the city’s Fishtown-Port Richmond neighborhood for six months. He chose the woods — a rustic patch of land not far from the city’s historic Penn Treaty Park that is quickly being eradicated by developers — over homeless encampments because, as he says, encampments attract too much drama. Last year a nearby encampment was the scene of a murder when a man was shot and killed by a homeless man in a dispute involving a woman. While the drama in these small tent enclaves rarely involve murder, the homeless couples who live here often fight and make life miserable for everybody else. Theft is also rampant. Richard has had his tent ransacked several times in this world where the law of the jungle prevails. 

Living in the woods has turned Richard into a kind of junkie Henry David Thoreau. He chops down trees for firewood and enjoys cooking for other homeless people over a campfire. He’s also become an expert of sorts on wildlife in the area. He talks about being chased in the woods one night by a large animal with bright orange eyes. His knapsack is never without a Swiss Army knife, a compass, flashlights, facial and cosmetic products, and a small collection of clean syringes he gets from harm reduction workers.

His former home, a mini-tent encampment near the Fishtown Crossing Shopping Center, was dismantled by the city when sanitation workers and police arrived to dismantle tents and hose down the ground. This left Richard pushing two shopping carts filled with his belongings in search of someplace to live. He says he decided to go to the woods because he didn’t want to be around other homeless people. 

The last several years have seen many homeless make their way into this relatively calm and “suburban” section of greater Kensington. Known as Flat Iron-Old Richmond, the area was once ignored by developers but is now buzzing with new construction and ex-New Yorkers who tend to decorate their properties with miniature Ukrainian flags. Unlike the more relaxed indigenous Philadelphia residents, the ex-New Yorkers have an almost violent reaction to one or two homeless people setting up a tent within eyeshot of their living room window. 

Mayor Cherelle Parker, who promised to clean up the city’s infamous homeless encampments along Kensington and Allegheny Avenue, made good on that pledge on the morning of May 8 when hundreds of people living on the streets and in tents near the Market-Frankford El’s Allegheny station were forced out of the area by police. Up to that point, more than 675 people were living on Kensington’s streets. Tent residents near K&A were given 30 days’ notice before the May 8 clean up. Yet what followed was a spectacle that didn’t exactly adhere to the city’s best-laid plans. 

The city promised that the clean up would not be a police endeavor but an outreach project where addicts would be counseled and given the option of being sent to rehab and then a shelter. Official police action would come at a later date for those who refused to leave the area. That promise fell like a house of cards when police arrived on the scene at 5:30 a.m. along with sanitation workers who began disbanding tents and ordering residents out of the area. 

“Legal observers and harm reductionists said they were on Kensington and Allegheny avenues by around 6:30 a.m,” The Kensington Voice reported. “They said they were trying to give people bags for their belongings, cigarettes, and bus tickets when police escorted them out of the area.” 

The so called “encampment resolution” was scheduled to start at 8 a.m and last until 3 p.m. with police officers and city staff standing as observers to “document and store people’s personal belongings for up to 30 days while they connected to services,” whether a rehab, shelter or a bus ticket back to their hometowns and families. 

What happened?

When outreach workers arrived at 7:30 a.m. the people living in tents had already left. 

“Police officers arrived at approximately 5:30 a.m., according to PPD representatives. By 7:20, city sanitation workers were throwing away peoples’ tents,” the Voice said.

So much for the promises from the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services (DBHIDS), the Office of Homeless Services (OHS), the Overdose Response Unit (ORU), and the PPD that individuals living on the streets would be transported to a shelter, a medical facility, or rehabilitation center. 

Mayor Parker has not yet commented on what seems to be a reconfiguration of the original plan. This isn’t to say that some of the homeless on May 8 were not helped. Chief Public Safety Director, Adam Geer, looking dapper in his blue sports jacket as the sweep was taking place, said that outreach workers had managed to persuade 36 people to accept offers of treatment and shelter. Conversely, WHYY’s Billy Penn blog reported that on the day of the operation “many people could be seen continuing to openly smoke and inject drugs steps away from the heavily policed section.” 

Other news outlets reported that some homeless people traveled to the area where the clean up was taking place to specifically talk to outreach workers about housing, but when they got there all they saw was police action. On May 8, I happened to be traveling on the El — which passes through the clean up area in question — and spotted several homeless people sitting on station benches obviously wondering where to go after the sweep that had taken place. 

Kensington residents are skeptical that any clean sweep will return the area to what it was like in the 1950s and ‘60s before its slow deterioration into an international open-air drug market. Though many believe the city will not be successful in eliminating Kensington as the narcotics destination of the United States, some businesses have taken a more positive view and cite the cleaning going on outside various stores in the area since Mayor Parker’s inauguration as small bright spots. 

Yet clean sweeps of tent enclaves and drug areas is an old Philly tradition: The tents inevitably return because the homeless have nowhere else to go — thanks mainly to the city’s complacency for many years in allowing K & A to become what it was until recently. Playing “fast catch up” often leads to sloppy mistakes, rash decisions, and (possibly) abusive policing methods. The latter just gives the anti-police people more ammunition for their “defund the police” campaign. 

Some critics of the mayor insist the project will fail unless there is a major infusion of resources to reduce poverty in the city. But in a city deemed the poorest big city in the nation, this is much like saying that nothing will change in Philadelphia unless there are massive progressive social changes like a socialist revolution that will “end poverty” quickly. This is almost like saying, “Nothing can be done.” 

One likely result of the mayor’s Kensington clean up plan is the disappearance of large tent encampments like the one in Kensington, and the appearance of smaller encampments all over the city at large. This is already happening in many sections of the city. Smaller encampments are harder to eradicate, especially if they are located near abandoned businesses — stores vacated because of bankruptcy and shoplifting, like the Rite Aid near my home in Old Richmond. An empty building that sits for a year attracts the homeless and becomes a drug shooting gallery for many. It seems the homeless have learned to limit the size of these sites so there’s an awareness not to turn them into massive cardboard cities. Not far from the Rite Aid site, for instance, several homeless live in their cars in another mini-site behind a CVS. Automobiles aren’t as noticeable as tents. Some homeless panhandle for gas money then move their cars when somebody objects but move them back again when the coast is clear. 

Mayor Parker’s big Kensington sweep has attracted the notice of officials in surrounding counties. Reports of people from Philadelphia going to towns like Pottstown have caused some concern. Pottstown Council President Dan Weand, for instance, told WHYY, “We’ve been aware for years that people have been vacating Philadelphia and moving west. We have our own share of homeless people who are from the Borough. We don’t need an influx of outsiders.” 

Pottstown’s mayor, Stephanie Henrick, concurred: “We are not a dumping ground.” 

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, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

3 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: Life on the streets – and in the woods”

  1. Can you get a comment from activist Madeline Brame? Madeline Brame lost two sons. One to fentanyl and the other was murdered and Alvin Bragg let his killers off easy. I’ll bet there are hundreds of Madeline Brame’s in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia schools are intentionally terrible. Clean them up! Where are the trade schools!?! Why are we allowing corporations to abuse the voters?

  2. I am still adopting a wait and see attitude on Mayor Parker’s efforts. So far i give her a lot of credit for trying to do something rather than the benign neglect that the people of Kensington suffered for the preceding eight years. I wish her well.

  3. I’ve done my own outreach for years in Kensington. I’d love to have a meeting with the mayor about mistakes made that cleanup day in May as the police took over and did what they wanted.

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