On the Front Lines of the Heroin Epidemic in Philadelphia

Needles & trash at heroin encampment along Gurney St. railroad tracks

The intersection of Second and Indiana Streets in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia is lined with rowhomes that look tired and worn. Some are completely abandoned. Despite the downtrodden atmosphere, the area was buzzing with activity on this sweltering summer morning. City agencies and numerous community outreach groups, including The Salvation Army Greater Philadelphia, set up tables and tents to offer vital social service resources to the residents of this neighborhood, long known as “The Badlands.”

“I’ve lived in this community for 30 years,” said Reverend Bonnie Camarda, Director of Partnerships, The Salvation Army of Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware. “Let’s not call it the ‘Badlands’ anymore. Let’s call it the ‘Good Lands’, because I really believe there is a God who can change things,” she added.

50 years ago the Fairhill and Kensington neighborhoods were thriving thanks to plentiful jobs in the manufacturing industry. The businesses have long since closed or moved out of the area and it is now held hostage by extreme poverty and an open-air drug market.

One of hundreds of used needles on the ground

“The drugs have to stop,” said Dennis Payne, a former addict and local resident. “Almost everyone in Kensington has a family member who is a user or a seller.” Dennis is among the many here who welcome a massive effort by the city and partner agencies to clean-up the streets, crack down on drugs, help addicts get treatment, and provide impoverished families with much-needed resources.

While residents mingled with the agency representatives at Second and Indiana, special outreach teams descended on railroad tracks off Gurney Street two blocks away. Dozens of heroin users have lived in a make-shift camp here for years. Amidst the trees, along the tracks and under the bridge lay hundreds of used needles and large piles of trash. Addicts shoot up on the embankment, on old dirty mattresses and in wooden shacks. The City of Philadelphia and Conrail, which owns the railroad tracks, are working together to clear the camp, clean up the trash and needles, and block it from further access.  This means the people who live here have to leave. Social workers and local advocates presented addicts with opportunities to meet with healthcare professionals and go to detox at local hospitals.

IMG_4920(Heroin Camp Photos)

“We will help those who are addicted get housing support and other supportive services. We have already increased our social service in this area in advance of the clean-up work and we have a resource hub right at this corner to improve access to services for

Michael DiBerardinis, Managing Director of the City of Philadelphia.

people who live here,” said Michael DiBerardinis, Managing Director of the City of Philadelphia.

“We will work with the residents of Kensington and Fairhill to take back their neighborhood and bring back a positive change to the community,” he added.

Joseph Murray, lead counselor with The Salvation Army’s local Adult Rehabilitation Center, met with addicts and local residents to explain The Salvation Army’s substance abuse treatment program and how it can transform the lives of those who want to get clean.

Joe Murray, Lead Counselor, ARC, in Salvation Army shirt

For over 100 years The Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Centers programs have provided spiritual, social, and emotional assistance for men and women who have lost the ability to cope with their problems and provide for themselves. Centers offer residential housing, work, and group and individual therapy, all in a clean, wholesome environment. The physical and spiritual care that program participants receive prepares them to re-enter society and return to gainful employment. Many of those who have been rehabilitated are reunited with their families and resume a normal life.

“As Christians our job is to plant the seed, to put the information in their head so they know there is service available. When they get to the point where they are looking to receive help, the seed has been planted and it’s the Lord’s job to make it grow,” Murray explained.

The Salvation Army’s Pioneer Corps Community Center sits in the heart of Kensington and serves many families in crisis who are impacted by the drug trade in their

Major Frederick Clarke, Corps Officer, The Salvation Army’s Pioneer Corps Community Center, speaks with local resident


“Many of them need financial counseling or financial help. They need food,” said Major Frederick Clarke, Corps Officer at Pioneer. “We have years of turmoil, years of problems to undo. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we are doing the best we can with the dollars we have.”

And as the city forges ahead to free neighbors trapped by poverty and drugs, The Salvation Army remains on the front lines to provide hope and transform lives.

“The change starts on the ground,” Clarke said. “It’s going to take all of us to do it.”


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