Philadelphia cracks down on Kensington's open-air drug market

(NewsNation) — Philadelphia is home to one of the country’s most notorious open-air drug markets, but a new mayor is proposing solutions that turn away from the harm-reduction strategies of a previous administration in hopes of better tackling the problem.

In the Kensington neighborhood, just five miles from the Liberty Bell, residents are passed out from drug use or fading in and out of consciousness.

A business owner who has worked in the area for 15 years tells NewsNation the open drug abuse seems like the worst it has ever been.

“You see people shooting up like in front of everybody, in front of the school. In the morning, kids walk by, and they don’t care. They just keep doing it. They’re using the bathroom in front of the kids in the morning. Like, I’ve never seen that before. There’s something that shouldn’t be happening,” said Elvys Amancia, a Kensington Avenue business owner.

History of opioid crisis in Kensington

Kensington has been a long-troubled area of Philadelphia as homelessness and drug use run rampant.

One of the most dangerous drugs being used in the neighborhood is xylazine, an animal tranquilizer that turns fentanyl addicts into “zombies.”

In 2023, a law enforcement source told NewsNation local affiliate WPIX that xylazine is in 90% of Philadelphia’s drug supply.

“Tranq,” a potentially lethal combination of xylazine and cocaine or fentanyl, has taken hold in the community, with users developing severe wounds, suppressing breathing and complicating overdose reversal.

Since 2018, opioid overdoses in Philadelphia have increased every year.

In 2021, Philadelphia lost 1,276 people to unintentional fatal overdose, a 5% increase from the previous year, according to city data.

What is Philadelphia doing?

The city’s new mayor, Cherelle Parker, who made history as the first Black female mayor, is hoping to be remembered for cleaning up the Kensington neighborhood as well.

Last week, police and city officials cleared encampments from underneath a bridge near the Allegheny train station, which was at the epicenter of the drug epidemic in Kensington.

City officials said those residing in the area were notified to take down any tents or structures that “pose public health and safety hazards and obstruct sidewalk passage.”

According to WTXF-TV, the city says it pulled about 28 people off the street and got them into treatment prior to the Wednesday deadline.

However, many say the resolution doesn’t solve the problem, just moves it.

Still, many users, community workers and business owners tell NewsNation the new initiatives give them hope.

“There was always people sleeping or just laying down or shooting drugs up, so at least everything is more safe now for you to walk around,” one resident said.

Elizabeth Ayala, who runs Hispanic community counseling and provides mental health services in the neighborhood, applauds Parker for her work so far but acknowledges that there is a lot more work to be done.

“We need to make sure our community is still safe. So that’s why we are here to try to finally see the change with the new mayor. So, I think she’s doing a great job so far. They just started, so we have to see more to come. So, hopefully, the community will be more safe, especially for the elderly and for our children,” Ayala said.

Attempts at addressing opioid crisis

Despite some backlash to her tactics, many residents say Parker’s efforts will be more effective than the previous administrations. Under Mayor Jim Kenney, the city expanded harm-reduction programs, including a surge of the overdose antidote Nalazone, fentanyl testing strips and the handing out of millions of clean syringes.

His administration also emphasized diverting those arrested for low-level crimes away from the criminal justice system by offering treatment instead of tougher consequences.

“I don’t think that’s the way. That’s why they get overdosed because they make it too easy for them. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to get them to rehab,” Amancia said.

Opioid crisis across the U.S.

The number of U.S. fatal overdoses fell last year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data posted Wednesday. This is only the second annual decline since the current national drug health epidemic began over three decades ago.

About 107,500 people died of overdoses in the U.S. last year, including both American citizens and noncitizens who were in the country at the time they died, the CDC estimated. That’s down 3% from 2022 when there were an estimated 111,000 such deaths, the agency said.

Prescription painkillers once drove the nation’s overdose epidemic, but they were supplanted years ago by heroin and, more recently, by illegal fentanyl. The dangerously powerful opioid was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer but has increasingly been mixed with other drugs in the illicit drug supply.

For years, fentanyl was frequently injected, but increasingly, it’s being smoked or mixed into counterfeit pills.

A study published last week found that law enforcement seizures of pills containing fentanyl are rising dramatically, jumping from 44 million in 2022 to more than 115 million last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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