Kensington’s opioid problem: how one Philadelphia neighborhood is grappling with substance use

The opioid epidemic has impacted many communities, including Philadelphia's Kensington. Read about this neighborhood's ongoing struggle with substance abuse.

Ophelia team
Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia, PA
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The opioid epidemic has ravaged countless communities since its first wave in the ‘90s—and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made confronting the crisis more challenging. One of the hardest-hit communities in the nation is Kensington, Philadelphia. The city has made considerable strides in getting drugs off the streets, treating opioid use disorder (OUD), and providing resources to community members, but are these strategies working?

This is the story of just one affected area, and it’s a story we need to keep talking about.

The impact on the community

Kensington wasn’t always like this. At one time, it was a thriving industrial area well-known for textile and leather manufacturing. As technologies and markets changed through the early 20th century, plants and factories began to close one after another. Housing values and investments from the city plummeted. Smaller local businesses began to fail, and so did social services. 

The neighborhood shifted into poverty, and with few to no employment opportunities or resources to get people back on their feet, many lost their homes and turned to drugs. Today, drug deals and the open use of opioids are common sights in the homeless encampments frequently seen throughout the community.

Kensington is notorious for how cheap, pure, and easily accessible drugs are, to the point where “drug tourists” visit from across the globe. It is home to possibly the largest open-air narcotics market on the East Coast. The neighborhood consistently sees the highest number of fatal overdoses in the city of Philadelphia, with 236 deaths attributed to opioid overdoses in 2017.

The opioid epidemic has resulted in a sharp increase in crime. Many Kensington residents are afraid to walk down the street, take public transit, or sleep while living in an encampment for fear of being attacked. The violent crime rate is approximately 30% higher in Kensington than in Philadelphia overall, and the total crime rate is about 123% higher than the national average. The rise in substance use has made life for people in Kensington more dangerous and unstable.

Overdose deaths decreased significantly from 2017–2019. Unfortunately,  the COVID-19 pandemic set back the progress started by the 2018 opioid disaster declaration.

What steps is the city taking to combat the crisis?

Eliminating encampments

Over the past several years, many government officials and nonprofit organizations have collaborated to develop various solutions for the opioid crisis in Kensington, Philadelphia. Officials have shut down multiple major encampments, emphasizing a zero-tolerance policy. About half of these individuals were reportedly placed in housing or treatment services, but with no long-term housing options, other encampments continued to grow or move. Outreach teams in Kensington are working to get people into housing and emergency shelters, although some are reluctant to leave areas where they can easily access opioids.

Creating a task force

In 2018, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order declaring a citywide emergency. City agencies and departments worked together to create the Philadelphia Resilience Project. This proposal, among other goals, aimed to clear larger encampments, reduce criminal activity, reduce overdoses and the spread of infectious disease, and increase treatment options. 

The project released a progress report less than a year into its operation, citing improvements such as adding 210 long-term housing opportunities for the most vulnerable, conducting nearly 2,500 HIV tests in Kensington, and making policy changes to increase medication-assisted treatment (MAT) accessibility. Perhaps the most striking announcement was that the homeless population had been cut in half.

With this proof of success, the program looked to the future. The task force had a set budget and a new set of goals. Then, the pandemic struck. Opioid use and overdoses spiked, and homelessness once again increased.

Despite this serious setback, Kensington and Philadelphia officials and residents are not giving up. There has been an increasing number of opportunities for employment, medical care, addiction treatment, and food. Treatments for opioid addiction include MAT, which utilized medications like Suboxone and buprenorphine to reduce cravings, manage withdrawal, and prevent overdose.

The public response to local officials’ efforts

Through these programs and efforts, the burning questions remain: Is the city doing enough? What’s working, and what’s been ineffective? Solving the opioid crisis is a deeply complex issue, and it has been clear from the start that the process will take a lot of time, outreach, and resources.

Many Kensington residents have felt unheard and ignored throughout the process. They’ve hit the city with waves of complaints about litter, violence, and open drug dealings. Some feel the city is too hesitant to act. Nonprofits and activists, who have organized their own outreach programs for the unhoused and individuals with substance use disorder (SUD), fear that the City of Philadelphia has moved on. Funding for neighborhood initiatives has dwindled. While the initial programs had tangible results, attention has since shifted to other problems, leaving the opioid epidemic in Kensington to escalate.

While their focuses may be different, neighborhood residents and local activist groups alike are frustrated with the lack of clarity in strategy or decision-making around the growing issues of opioid use and addiction. While there are several factors that must be addressed, swift action, funding, and increased access to MAT programs will be necessary to improve the quality of life in Kensington, Philadelphia.

Why Ophelia is telling this story

As an MAT provider in Pennsylvania, we need to know what’s happening on the ground. And we need to make it clear that this is just one community among many fighting an uphill battle. Only 3% of Pennsylvania practitioners are X-waiver certified, and over 5,100 people died from opioid overdoses in 2021.

MAT works as long as the treatment is accessible, especially in hard-hit areas. We partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to develop a comprehensive graduate-level nurse practitioner training program so more students would graduate with an X-waiver than ever before. In fact, we’ve already trained 25 clinicians.  

We also work with several insurance carriers in Pennsylvania to help residents in the Philadelphia area and beyond get the care they need:

  • AmeriHealth Caritas
  • Geisinger Health Plan
  • Highmark BCBS (excluding Wholecare)
  • Keystone First Health Plan
  • United Healthcare

Scheduling a consultation call is the first step, and we’ll have your back the whole way.


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