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Philadelphia wants to “clean up” in the Kensington neighborhood

Photo: Marie-France Coallier Le Devoir The police have been much more present on the streets of Kensington since the new mayor took office in January.

Jessica Nadeau in Philadelphia

Published at 0:00 Updated at 12:21 a.m.

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The city of Philadelphia has been struggling for several years with a new substance with devastating effects: xylazine. Nicknamed the “zombie drug,” it plunges people who consume it into a prolonged state of unconsciousness, in addition to creating strong dependence and irreversible physical damage. Le Devoirwent there to document the social impact of this drug, which is starting to make its way into the country. Fourth of five texts.

Philadelphia's new mayor wants to “clean up” Kensington's open-air drug market. It toughens police repression and puts obstacles in the way of organizations that offer harm reduction services, including the popular needle exchange program. A situation which greatly worries those who work in the field, but which relieves some residents of the sector.

“They are going to die,” says Shannon Ashe, co-founder of The Everywhere Project, which distributes food, clothing, wound bandages, safe drinking materials and naloxone to more than 1000 people per week. “We are going to see an increase in the number of deaths, an increase in cases of hepatitis and HIV. »

Like several other actors present on the ground, she criticizes the “radical change” of the new municipal administration, which relies on police force rather than prevention to eradicate drug problems in this devastated neighborhood. “The number of arrests has increased dramatically. People on the streets are afraid; they are constantly forced to move around, which is not good, because the more people are spread out, the less able they are to help themselves in the event of an overdose. »

One of the sites that the organization has occupied for four years is located in a parking lot owned by the City. “They tell us that we may no longer be able to occupy this site,” laments Ms. Ashe. “But we’re going to fight. We work with several other organizations, we want to be part of the discussion. »

Terry Luma, who serves hot dogs and offers a shower service in a converted recreational vehicle every Wednesday morning in the area, is also worried about the fate of the most deprived. Rumors that religious ministries like his, If Not for Grace, will no longer be able to offer services on the streets worry him greatly. “The new administration says they want to help the industry, so they’re arresting people and wanting to stop us from providing services to them on the street. How this will help ? I don’t know. Maybe they think that if we stop feeding them, they will go elsewhere. »

Philadelphia wants to “clean up” in the Kensington neighborhood

Photo: Marie-France Coallier Le Devoir Sue Luma of the religious ministry If not for Grace hugs a user who thanks her for giving her a stuffed animal for her child.

The argument that harm reduction organizations contribute to the problem by attracting consumers irritates Shannon Ashe to no end. “We’re here because they need us, they don’t need us because we’re there! »

Rosalind Pichardo, who works at “Maison Soleil”, also refuses to give up. “I’ve always worked here in Kensington, lived in Kensington. And I find it important to continue the work, even if some want to stop us. »

Reducing harm ?

The new mayor, Cherelle Parker, was elected last November on the promise of “cleaning up” Kensington. The first hundred days of his mandate were largely devoted to this. She launched the “Kensington Caucus” and a series of legislative measures to crack down on the neighborhood's drug dealers and users. “On the first day of my administration, I issued a public safety emergency declaration and made it clear that we would not tolerate these types of crimes, which undermine the quality of life,” declared the mayor in a press release in January.

She promises more housing and places for addiction treatment. At the same time, it also announced that it would no longer fund the only municipal needle exchange program, managed by the organization Prevention Point, which offers harm reduction services to more than 36,000 people per year.

A decision that saddens James Latronica, doctor and president of the Pennsylvania Addiction Treatment Society. “Needle exchange programs are very effective. It’s one of the few public health measures that not only pays for itself, but also saves tons of money. » Not only should we not slash harm reduction measures, but we should develop more, believes the man who, like several others in Philadelphia, wants the opening of a supervised injection center — a measure considered too controversial by legislators, who are blocking the initiative.

Philadelphia wants to “clean up” in the Kensington neighborhood

Photo: Marie-France Coallier Le Devoir Tents are set up directly on the sidewalks in Kensington.

He goes even further, pleading for the legalization of drugs, a measure which would, according to him, ensure better quality of substances. “If you say you don’t want people injecting [drugs] on the street, give them a safe place to do it! If you don't want people ending up in the hospital and public funds paying for hepatitis and HIV medications, give them clean needles! If you don’t want people to get poisoned [with street drugs], give them a non-poisoned supply! Sometimes the answers are so obvious. I hope that one day we will look back on [the current situation] and ask ourselves: “What the hell were we thinking?””

Monika VanSant, an addiction treatment doctor who treats wounds in Philadelphia, agrees. “You have to keep people alive until they’re ready to go to therapy,” she says.

The mayor's team did not respond to interview requests from Devoir.

“Get the hell out of here”

On the street, Gary Kidd, 46, finds the mayor's new approach “a little harsh.” He would need more portable toilets and fewer police officers who force him to move constantly. “You can never find a place to sit and relax, you always have to move, they push us further down the street. » That doesn't stop the man standing next to him, clearly visible in a small street, from giving a client an injection in the neck for a few dollars without anyone coming to disturb him.

A little further on, the police dislodge a small group installed on a street corner. A man sitting against a wall redoes the bandages on his leg as quickly as possible before limping away; another holds a syringe in his mouth, visibly in a hurry to give himself an injection a little further away. “Thank you for your cooperation,” the policeman says in the metallic voice of his loudspeaker.

Philadelphia wants to “clean up” in the Kensington neighborhood

Photo: Marie-France Coallier Le Devoir The police ask a group of people to move. One of them tries to quickly redo his bandage to comply with this order.

The police are not the only ones to evict people who live or inject themselves in the street. “Go further, we're going to open, it's not good for the business”, Michael says to a group of visibly intoxicated people as he opens the scrap dealer's gate where he works. The tone rises when someone replies that the sidewalks belong to everyone. “Get the hell out of here,” replied the employee, who later apologized to the journalist for having “sworn in front of a woman.”

Business owner Michael Mayberry grew up in the neighborhood. As a child, he would feed the pigeons with his grandmother in McPherson Park, now nicknamed “Needles Park.” He saw the neighborhood deteriorate, and moved because he couldn't imagine raising his children there. “The neighborhood was abandoned for years, they didn’t really care. They're more interested in it now because there's money involved, because of the gentrification of certain areas. But before, they didn't care. They let the neighborhood become shit,” he laments.

This is why he approves “100%” of Mayor Parker’s measures. He knows that people who use drugs experience great suffering, which they try to drown in drugs. He knows it’s always more complicated than it seems. But he believes that it is time to restore order in the neighborhood.

“It would be great to bring my kids here, so they can have the same experience I had. I don't see this possibility in the near future, but with the new measures that are being put in place, it becomes a possibility. »

This report was financed thanks to the Transat International Journalism Fund-Le Devoir.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116