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Plan to Crack Down on Unhoused People Spells Disaster for Philadelphians

A new report reveals the city’s plans to clear homeless encampments and jail vulnerable residents.

Police arrest a man as the city of Philadelphia begins a long anticipated clearing of the homeless encampment in Kensington on May 8, 2024, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The city of Philadelphia has released a 100-day Public Safety Plan with a section focused on cleaning up the “open-air drug market” in the city’s Kensington neighborhood. The release follows recent reports that the city’s jails are violent and understaffed, leading criminal legal advocates to call for a different solution to protect vulnerable communities living on the streets.

The 100-day report reveals plans to arrest houseless people for drugs, sex work, and other “criminal acts.” The operation started in April and will be carried out in five phases: the first phase starting with a warning, the second and third phases planning for a heavy police presence to “secure” the neighborhood, and the fourth phase seeing police return the neighborhood to the “rightful owners of the community and its residents.” The last stage will redistribute resources to other priority areas.

Organizers say the phase initiative and the language used in the report are dangerous, xenophobic, and anti-migrant. The city has planned an eviction for May 8, leaving providers scrambling to prepare for an influx of new participants. In preparation, advocates have been on the streets providing information about people’s rights and the Kensington Public Safety Plan.

“The Philadelphia jails are currently not functional; they are in crisis,” said Leigh Owens, the education and advocacy director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “While the use of incarceration to respond to the public health issue of drug use is never effective, today in Philadelphia, without a functioning jail, it would be a catastrophic mistake.”

Criminal legal advocates say the current jail system is unable to handle a large influx of medically vulnerable people in need of care and rehabilitation. The Philadelphia County jail system, known as the Department of Prisons, has been under federal oversight due to its poor conditions since coming to a settlement in April 2022. The settlement included reducing the existing medical backlog at the jails and reestablishing a mental health program in the jails by Sept. 30, 2022. Last year, the court monitor reported two deaths by suicide, one homicide, and two accidental drug overdoses. There were 14 deaths overall. In April, civil rights groups filed a motion of contempt against the city for failing to comply with the courts, claiming a “pattern of systemic violations of the constitutional rights” of prisoners.

“The Prison Society regularly receives reports of individuals having seizures and other medical emergencies in their cells that go unresponded to,” Owens said. “The majority of people in the jail are not let out of their cells on a daily basis. There is no ability to provide therapeutic programming when there is not even enough staff to let people out of their cells consistently to use phones.”

Advocates say incarcerating houseless people for drug use could put them in a medical crisis due to withdrawals. Some say allowing people to go through withdrawal in hospitals and jails is a violation of the Eighth Amendment rule against cruel and unusual punishment. National organizations, like the Drug Policy Alliance, have advocated for the decriminalization of drugs and access to a safe supply of opioids, like hydromorphone. Without proper withdrawal medications, patients could treat themselves covertly, bringing contraband illicit substances used to treat their own pain.

Drug overdoses in jails and prisons often go undercounted, but many have resulted from untreated health complications and overdoses. PennLive and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism engaged in a six-month investigation to uncover missing jail death data. Their latest 2022 data found that nine deaths were classified as accidental, most of which were overdoses. This data supports anecdotal evidence from the advocates.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel recently said there is no timetable for arrests starting in Kensington. Even if people from the street decide to begin treatment, it is unclear what that will look like and how they will be supported with housing afterward. Mayor Cherelle L. Parker’s administration has announced the opening of triage centers, which seem similar to the current police-assisted diversion (PAD) program. The plans remain unclear, and the administration refuses to provide further details.

“Immediate action should be taken to ensure the safety and appropriate health care of detained individuals before mass incarcerations are attempted,” said Kevin Moore, a long-time provider of opioid use disorder services for reentering persons in Philadelphia. “Improvements in social determinants of health, such as access to housing, food, employment, and safety, are what is needed in Kensington to become a thriving community.”

Treatment centers and hospitals in the city have often been unable to assist people outside of jails and prisons. A patient recently died while withdrawing from drugs at Eagleville Hospital, an inpatient rehab often cited as a space for people struggling with addiction in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, just northwest of Philadelphia. In November, another patient died in the behavioral health unit at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania-Cedar Avenue in West Philadelphia. That hospital is part of a larger health system that shut down Wright 4, an 18-bed inpatient rehab, last year. Health care advocates fought to keep Wright 4 open, but the hospital refused.

The larger issue is whether a city needs to provide housing at all. The Supreme Court heard the case of Johnson v. Grants Pass on April 22, which concerns whether a city can prohibit sleeping on public property when it does not provide an alternative. The court’s decision this summer will determine what cities will have to do to shelter or permanently house an increasing number of people sleeping on their streets or whether it is valid to fine, arrest, and incarcerate those individuals when there is no shelter available.

Recently elected Mayor Parker has asked the City Council for $100 million for this initiative to end Kensington’s open-air drug market. The most recent statements from the administration have been less bombastic than previous statements, but police still intend to put houseless people in jail for drug use and sex work. Parker’s managing director said treatment would be the priority over arresting people and hopes this latest investment will yield positive results. Ultimately, the tough talk may lead to disastrous results without careful and thoughtful planning that understands the consequences of sending hundreds of vulnerable people with complex needs into Philadelphia’s current health and social service infrastructure.

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