Here’s What Kenney’s Opioid Disaster Declaration Means for Kensington

The mayor’s just-signed executive order creates an emergency response team that could actually effect change.

kenney kensington disaster opioid epidemic

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Mayor Jim Kenney is getting serious about Philadelphia’s overdose epidemic — particularly in Kensington, where the crisis is most prevalent.

On Wednesday, the mayor signed an executive order declaring a disaster in the neighborhood, which has seen 500 overdose deaths this year and where the homeless population has more than doubled in the past year, from roughly 271 this time in 2017 to 703 in mid-September.

“The crisis has created unacceptable conditions for Kensington and the surrounding neighborhood,” the executive order reads. “Nearly 150 people are camped on Frankford Avenue and Emerald Street, alone, with smaller encampments spread throughout the community. Drugs are bought, sold, and injected openly. Addiction has increased the number of individuals participating in the sex trade. Streets, school yards and public parks are littered with trash, human waste and used syringes. Children and commuters dodge illegal activity on their way to school and work.”

The city has previously tried expanding outreach and education efforts in Kensington: Officials have cleared long-time homeless encampments, created homeless outreach teams, added 120 emergency respite beds and 300 supportive housing units to the neighborhood, distributed Naloxone to community groups, and cleaned illegal dumping sites. But it’s just not enough.

Now, Kenney’s order will allow the Office of Emergency Management to create an emergency operations center. For the first two weeks of operation, the center will be located in the Fire Department’s headquarters, according to a city spokesperson. Then it will relocate to Kensington. reports that officials wanted to set up the center away from City Hall in hope of fostering an environment that’s less bureaucratic and more decisive and connected to the community.

In addition, the order will create an emergency response group that will utilize members of at least seven city departments to address the crisis from multiple angles. The city managing director will lead this group, which in some ways resembles the mayor’s opioid Task Force.

The emergency response group will include officials from the Office of Health and Human Services (which will clear encampments and offer health services), the Office of Criminal Justice and Public Safety (which will attempt to lessen open-air drug sales and use, as well as lessen the solicitation of prostitutes), the Office of Homeless Services, the Community Life Improvement Program (which will reduce trash and discarded syringes), the Department of Public Health (which will attempt to reduce overdose deaths and the spreading of HIV and other diseases), the Office of Behavioral Health and Intellectual DisAbility Services, and the Office of Community Services.

All city departments, agencies, boards and commissions will be required to required to cooperate with the emergency response group and provide data when requested.

Plus, the group is obligated to communicate any actions or suggestions with city officials and the press on a weekly basis — something that differentiates it, in a way, from the city’s plethora of relatively unproductive task forces. Members will also be required to develop a website where weekly target goals and progress are posted. If the group is held to this continuous responsibility and monitoring, there’s a chance it could produce or at least encourage concrete results.

“It is apparent that the City’s resources alone cannot resolve the challenges facing Kensington and the surrounding neighborhoods,” the order reads. “A new approach is necessary to tackle these issues, new partnerships must be forged and new resources must be brought to bear.”

Meanwhile, the city is continuing to explore the idea of opening a safe injection site.