Underpass: Drug Stories from Kensington, Philadelphia
Project info

On the corner of Somerset St. and Kensington Ave. in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, a few miles north of center city, activity swirls on the bird dropping covered street. Percocet for sale, works for trade, loose cigarettes for fifty cents, figures in hooded sweatshirts huddle in front of a coffee shop next to a fenced-in abandoned trash covered lot. A black-market economy thrives on this corner with addicts looking to score.

The corner, long known as an epicenter of the drug trade in Philadelphia, is blocks away from a homeless encampment under Conrail tracks and the elevated Septa train. A few dozen homeless men and women make a place to live in this underpass. They sleep, eat, take drugs, cry, and fight on a strip of concrete hard-by passing traffic, families walking their children to school and commuters making their way to the nearby El stations.

Since the infamous “El Campamento” homeless camp on the train tracks nearby was razed in August 2017, homeless addicts have set up tents and mattresses at four underpasses; this one on Kensington Ave, as well as at Emerald Street, Frankford Ave. and Tulip St., all north of E. Lehigh Avenue.

Overdose deaths are skyrocketing in the city, the numbers of OD's pushed up by powerful synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl mixed into the heroin sold on the street. City of Philadelphia officials have given approval to a plan for a safe injection site to combat the overdose deaths. The site would allow addicts to inject drugs in a supervised setting with no threat of arrest, with clean needles, advocacy for recovery and health professionals to administer Narcan in case of accidental overdose. Kensington is one of the neighborhoods suggested as a possible location for the safe injection site.

Virtually all the homeless under Kensington Avenue have the same thing in common: heroin. A few in the camp are not injecting, they are smoking crack or K2, synthetic marijuana. Those that are addicted to heroin are shooting the drug in the morning at 8am. They are using at 4pm in the afternoon. When they are not injecting, they are looking to make money to cop. Men are stealing or panhandling. Women are selling sex or tending to other addicts in barter.

These are some of the stories of the Kensington underpass and the surrounding streets: Terrence, Vincent, Ally, Julie, Nick, Gary, Delores and Teddy. Julie injects addicts in the neck when they can't find a vein in their arms. Vincent scrapes the remnants of heroin packets in an attempt to get high. Gary sleeps in a tent to protect his sister. Nick wants to get clean. For the homeless living in these four encampments, the days are long, these days on Emerald and Tulip - and Frankford and Kensington.