In bitter cold under the Emerald Street bridge, outreach workers Bridgette Tobler and Tim Sheahan hurried to help the 45 people still living there last week pack up and take the first steps toward a new life. The pair coordinated the logistics to send them to shelters and treatment programs, while handing out heavy plastic bins where the holdouts could store their belongings.
“Let’s get whatever you can so you can get up there,” Sheahan told one man sharing a tent with his cousin. “There” was one of only two shelters serving people in active addiction in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Both shelters were full but were still taking in some of those evicted Thursday morning from the city’s last major homeless encampment.
“I’m gonna tell them to bring down one container, you’re gonna start packing, and we’re gonna get youse in, alright?” Tobler said.
Tobler and Sheahan, who work for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, were among dozens of city workers from several agencies — along with dozens of police officers — who converged on Emerald Street to help clear the camp. The underpass buzzed with activity: workers unloading storage bins; police prodding people still in their tents; and advocates handing out doses of Narcan as reporters and camera crews hovered. But things proceeded calmly during the three hours it took to clear Kensington’s most notorious homeless encampment.
The Emerald Street evictions were the culmination of nine months of work to clear four major encampments using a new, outreach-intensive strategy for addressing opioid-related homelessness. Those camps had formed soon after the city cleaned up and secured a stretch of Conrail tracks along Gurney Street that was home to a large encampment and open-air shooting gallery. Though the tent cities that have plagued the neighborhood for nearly two years are gone now, more than 100 people who congregated there are unaccounted for, and many more are still living on the street in the grip of opioid addiction.