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Philly is among cities switching tactics on how to address addiction and homelessness

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A number of major cities are changing the way they address addiction and homelessness. In Philadelphia, the city's new mayor, Cherelle Parker, is employing an aggressive strategy in Kensington, a neighborhood that is home to one of the largest open-air drug markets in the country. Nicole Leonard from member station WHYY in Philadelphia tells us about rising tensions in the community as the city gets ready to launch its plan.

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NICOLE LEONARD, BYLINE: Along Kensington Avenue, people are camped out together in large clusters on the sidewalk or dodging cars as they dart across the street to encampments on the other side. You can see people using drugs out in the open. Needles and pieces of trash litter the ground. Subway cars roar by on elevated train tracks above the street.

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LEONARD: It's an average Wednesday in Kensington. But Philadelphia's new mayor, Cherelle Parker, says that's about to change.

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CHERELLE PARKER: The status quo that's been able to prevail, here in Kensington, in particular - the open-air drug markets, the widespread addiction, the deep despair - that it is unacceptable, and change is on the way. Change is on the way.

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LEONARD: One of Parker's top priorities is to shut down the open-air drug market. Her plan involves increasing police presence, enforcing drug laws and relocating people who are homeless into housing or addiction treatment programs. The mayor is gaining support from many long-term residents and local council members who accuse previous city administrations of allowing a billion-dollar drug trade to grow and flourish for decades in an already impoverished neighborhood. Resident Roxy Rivera expressed her frustration during a recent town hall meeting.

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ROXY RIVERA: I've been dealing with this for a long time now, and I'm completely fed up with it. We need to see things moving in the direction that will make us feel safe and our families.

LEONARD: Addiction medicine providers and harm reduction groups working in Kensington agree that the community needs more resources to become safer and cleaner for everyone, but they worry that the city's new plan will exacerbate issues of addiction and homelessness.

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NICOLE BIXLER: People are going to disappear. People are going to die. People will be thrown in jail.

LEONARD: Nicole Bixler is a licensed clinical social worker and a person in long-term recovery. She runs a local nonprofit that provides harm-reduction services like wound care, treatment assessment and overdose reversal medication. She worries that people who go to jail will get cut off from this type of care. She also worries what will happen to them when they're eventually released.

BIXLER: If a person stops using for 24 hours or more, they're going to experience withdrawal symptoms. And if they end up using after that, their tolerance has decreased, and they're at risk for overdose.

LEONARD: Inside a small storefront on Kensington Avenue, people are lounging in chairs, simply resting or nodded out. One person walks toward the back of the narrow space to use a toilet and shower. This is Savage Sisters Recovery drop-in center, where people come for harm reduction services and a safe space. But this September, the organization will pack up the storefront and go completely mobile after the building's owner denied them another lease. This decision got support from local council members who've pledged to crack down on how harm reduction groups operate in the area. Savage Sisters co-founder Sarah Laurel says it's been hard news to deliver to her clients.

SARAH LAUREL: Most of them just want to know where are you going to be. And we'll always be here - they know that. But it's a lot of uncertainty right now.

LEONARD: Philadelphia leaders are pledging to open new triage centers - places that will offer people addiction treatment options and services like housing. But city officials are still looking for the money to fund them. They don't yet know where they will be located, who will staff them and how they will ensure enough treatment beds for every person who wants one. And they won't be in place when the city begins clearing people off the streets and dismantling encampments this month. Laurel says her harm reduction team is bracing for more deaths as a consequence.

LAUREL: But we're going to serve. That's it. We will never stop serving. We will show up. Whether it's low-key, underground or what - you know, we're going to do it.

LEONARD: The city is warning people in Kensington that they'll begin taking action in a couple days.

For NPR News, I'm Nicole Leonard in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nicole Leonard