City

The Opioid Crisis Is Worsening Homelessness in Philly. Solving the Problem Is a Matter of Survival

On any given night, more than a thousand people are sleeping on the streets of our city. This is what it's like to live in Philadelphia without a home, and what it would take to fix the situation.


homeless philadelphia

Kenny Nelson has been on and off the street for nearly a decade. He says he’s kicked his drug habit and would love to get into subsidized housing. Photograph by Jeffrey Stockbridge

It’s another perfectly shitty day to be homeless in Philadelphia. Cold, wet and pitiless.

T.S. Eliot famously said that April is the cruelest month, but most people living on the street will tell you it’s December, when the holidays remind you of all you’ve left behind. It’s a few days before Christmas, and City Hall is decked with boughs of holly. The air is alive with the sound of children’s laughter; skaters pirouette across the ice rink; lunch-hour shoppers browse the wares on offer; an old-timey carousel spins in the courtyard.

But in the gloom of the tunnels that slice through City Hall, it’s a tale of a different city. Against the wall, a young woman slumps defeatedly in a wheelchair, her sad eyes beseeching passing strangers, silently soliciting donations for a charity of one. Her name is April, and though she looks neither young nor old in the dingy light, she says she’s 27. She came here from Allentown two years ago, after she went AWOL from a drug treatment facility with a fellow inpatient-gone-rogue, and never left. They’d heard through the stoner grapevine that Kensington was the land of milk and honey for those chasing the warm narcotic glow of opiates. “People come here from all over the world,” April says, a note of wonder in her voice. “It’s like an open-air drug market, and it’s the only place you can walk down the street and not have any problems with cops — it’s just there.”

April has only been living on the street for three months; she couch-surfed for the prior two years, until she’d wrung the last vestiges of patience and generosity from her friends and family, or what’s left of them. Her mother passed away a few years ago, and her father is a recovering alcoholic living in North Carolina. “My sister lives in Malvern. She tries to be supportive, but at this point, she distances herself to protect herself and the kids,” April says quietly. “She’s tired.”

So these days, April sleeps in front of Macy’s. She’s afraid to sleep in shelters and feels safer in Center City than in Kensington, though she rides the El there every morning to get clean needles. She says she can make about $40 a day panhandling — enough to buy something to eat at Wawa and a few bags of heroin. At this point, she doesn’t even use to get high, just to stave off the cold-sweat shivers, bone-deep ache and fecal incontinence of withdrawal, a.k.a. dope sickness. Unlike many users who develop habits, April was never prescribed opioids. She started using them recreationally in her teens. They were expensive, but she could afford them thanks to steady strip-club work. Somewhere along the line, that went away, and she switched to heroin, which, at $5 a bag, is much cheaper than black-market prescription pills.

As is true of most people on the street, this isn’t the life she envisioned for herself, but it’s the one she’s living. She says she’s been in treatment 70 times but only completed it once, staying sober for 134 days. She was working and going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and it really seemed like she was going to beat this thing. Then her boyfriend left her, and she started using again to cope with the hurt. Now she’s on her own, so she seeks safety in numbers. “I always stick with someone; I’m never alone — or I try not to be, at least,” she says. “But you have to be careful who you sit with. People are dangerous. People don’t care out here. You’re very vulnerable.”

According to a 2018 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2017, 1,769 homeless people suffered violent attacks, 476 of which proved fatal. Life is cheap on the streets of Philadelphia, where a $5 bag of fentanyl-laced heroin can kill you in less time than it takes to find a working vein. This is ground zero of the opioid epidemic in America, with 1,116 fatal drug overdoses in 2018. That’s three times higher than the murder rate that year and the highest overdose rate of America’s 10 biggest cities.

These are Dickensian days in our fair city. Beneath the gleaming skyscrapers that sprout up seemingly every day, things are far too tough for far too many people. There are more than 59,000 names on the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s waiting list for affordable housing. There are, on any given night, roughly 1,000 people sleeping on the streets. But they’re just the iceberg’s tip of Philly’s homeless crisis. When you factor in those living in shelters and temporary housing, most of whom are invisible to the general public, that number balloons above 5,700, according to Liz Hersh, director of the Office of Homeless Services for the City of Philadelphia. The street homeless population is largely concentrated in two neighborhoods: Kensington, because that’s where the drugs are, and Center City, because that’s where the panhandling dollars are, not to mention a well-lit, police-patrolled sense of security and access to social services.

Since 2015, when the opioid epidemic was ramping up to its deadly zenith, the number of people police count sleeping on the street overnight in the two square miles that comprise Center City has increased 57 percent, to roughly 500 people per night. The number of panhandlers has increased 116 percent, according to the Center City District. The toll these spikes have exacted is readily apparent. Last year, feces on the sidewalks led to an outbreak of hepatitis A that infected 154 people in seven months, prompting the city to declare a health emergency in August. Tent encampments have sprung up in many public spaces in Center City. Every night, so many people set up camp in the tunnels that run beneath the Convention Center from Race Street to Arch Street that annual cleaning and security costs have spiked by $750,000, according to John McNichol, CEO of the center. And until very recently, not a day went by that an overdose on ­SEPTA’s southbound Market-Frankford line or one of the bus lines from Kensington to Center City didn’t bring the entire public transit system to a standstill, according to Tom Nestel, chief of SEPTA Transit Police. “In 2018, transit police delivered 390 doses of Narcan to overdosing people,” he says. That’s slightly more than one overdose for every day of the year.

homeless philadelphia

This encampment at 18th and Vine streets was cleared by the city on January 6th. Photograph by Jeffrey Stockbridge

The suffering is real — and heartbreaking. Beyond the numbers, there’s another existential issue lurking beneath the surface. Nobody wants to say it on the record, but the city’s retail and hospitality sectors aren’t happy with these developments and are demanding action. Likewise, booking agents for gatherings and trade shows at the Convention Center that pump upwards of $500 million annually into the local economy report that their attendees are spooked by the number of aggressive panhandlers and people sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks. “When I took over the Convention Center five years ago, the homeless weren’t even on our radar,” says McNichol. “But it has bubbled up since then, and we are constantly taking the pulse of our customers, and we have heard that some of their attendees have expressed being uneasy around some of the street homelessness, especially the panhandling. And these are the kinds of concerns that we handle in conversations pretty well — but probably not forever. Our customers have a tremendous amount of other viable choices for hosting their conventions.”

The threat of major bookings abandoning Philadelphia — where the combined hospitality and retail sectors employ 124,000 people — is all too real. Citing “poor street conditions,” which reports interpreted as homelessness, Oracle announced in December that it was moving its 60,000-person OpenWorld tech conference — along with the estimated $64 million it was expected to pump into the local economy — from San Francisco to Las Vegas. Can’t happen here? Think again. Fifty-eight percent of participants in the Center City District’s 2019 Customer Satisfaction Survey cited “aggressive panhandling” as the primary reason they feel “unsafe” downtown; 45 percent cited people sleeping on the sidewalk or in doorways.

“This is a real caution flag that we need to pay attention to. While 20-to-34-year-olds may be more tolerant of some of these conditions on the street and not feel unsafe, the numbers change dramatically when you get to 35,” says Paul Levy, president and CEO of the CCD. “If we’re talking about seriously retaining all the millennials in Center City, this problem needs to be addressed. I think from a tourism and hospitality and retail point of view, this is a key issue. The Center City District got started in the ’90s because there were so many quality-of-life challenges that made this a place where people didn’t want to work or locate businesses. Clearly, we’re in a much better state than we were before, but we need to get creative in the solutions, because things can unravel quickly, and we should not take for granted the progress we’ve made.” Heartless and calculated as it sounds, there have been anecdotal reports that some of the deepest-pocketed investors in the city’s renaissance have begun to wonder aloud if Philadelphia is still a safe long-term bet.

Kenny Nelson has L-O-V-E tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand and H-A-T-E tattooed across the knuckles of his left. “Because that’s what the world is made of,” he says. Kenny has been on and off the street for going on 10 years. He’s been working the 8th Street off-ramp of the Vine Street Expressway for the past eight years, rain or shine, from sunup to sundown. “Years ago, you used to be able to make $150 a day. Now, you’re lucky to make $50 after a whole day’s work,” says the 33-year-old Salem County native. “It’s from years of people coming out here ruining lanes, people coming over from Camden to make money and nodding out [on heroin]. People see that and they won’t give you any money, so we chase them off.” Kenny used to live that life — it started with a Percocet prescription for a broken ankle and went south fast. But after a few years, he got tired of it, and for the past four years, he’s been off heroin and on suboxone, an opioid addiction treatment medication that enables him to maintain his sobriety without getting dope-sick. Every month, he gets drug- tested by his suboxone provider.

Panhandling isn’t for the faint of heart. If it’s not the newcomers busting in and scaring off Kenny’s customers, it’s a carload of teenagers pulling up and whipping a handful of pennies at his face. He still has the scars from that. Then there’s the cop who always runs his name through the system, looking for outstanding warrants he doesn’t have. “I don’t bother anyone, I don’t tap on people’s windows, I don’t ask nobody for money. If they want to roll down their window and give me a dollar or food, that’s up to them,” he says. “The cops have issued me 16 tickets for obstructing traffic. I just throw them away.”

homeless philadelphia

“I just need one nice door to open and then I’m off the streets,” says Kenny Nelson. Photograph by Jeffrey Stockbridge

Kenny sleeps at the 8th and Market subway station, which stays open all night for the PATCO line. It’s a pretty sweet deal — warmth and shelter from the storm — but Kenny fears it could be shut down soon, “because some of these younger kids are savages,” he says, in an exasperated kids-these-days tone. “I think it’s the opioid crisis that’s brought all these young kids out on the street. There is this one couple, guy and girl, 18 years old, their family plasters their pictures all over the place with their phone number. Me and my friends tell them, ‘Look, you gotta get off the street and go back to your family, you still got your whole life ahead of you.’ But they don’t want to hear it. The younger generation, they’re pissing all over the place, even shitting in the subway, and they’re ruining it for everyone. Us old heads have our own little section of the subway. We distance ourselves from the younger generation; we keep it clean and everything. But they still want to come over and piss on the steps. People walk by and see that and look at us with disgust. They make us all look bad, and it’s sad because we’re not like that. We’re really not like that.”

“I think it’s the opioid crisis that’s brought all these young kids out on the street,” says Kenny Nelson. “Me and my friends tell them, ‘You gotta get off the street.’ But they don’t want to hear it.”

The worst thing Kenny’s seen while living on the street? “Murder! Murder, stabbings, shootings — I seen it all,” he says. “Over $5, I saw someone get stabbed the other day. I’ve seen people get jumped by like 10 people just for being a couple dollars short when trying to buy. I’ve seen people sitting peacefully on the sidewalk and people come by and kick their cup — ‘Get a fucking job, bum!’ — kicking people, kicking signs, kicking cups. It’s the younger generation. They are literally ruining everything. Fighting in the subway — I’m telling you, it’s not like when I was a kid.”

I ask why he’s still on the street if he’s kicked his drug habit. He just shrugs. I ask if the city’s homeless outreach teams have had contact with him. “Once in a while, they’ll come by. They give me a number to call, but it’s the same old bullshit. Nothing gets done,” he says. “‘Oh, we’ll be coming by with blankets,’ and we never see anything. They say they’ll give us food at 8th and Market and nothing’s ever been brought.” I ask him if he’d move into subsidized housing if it were offered. “I would do that in a heartbeat. I would take a drug test every week if they needed to see that,” he says. “I’ve been out for a while, but I keep telling myself this ain’t gonna be forever. I’m getting stronger and better every day now that I’m off dope. I just need one nice door to open and then I’m off the streets.”

Technically speaking, there have been people living on the streets for as long as there have been streets. They’ve had many names over the years, none of them kind: beggars, untouchables, vagabonds, hobos, bums. But homelessness as we currently understand it has a distinctly late-20th-century provenance. It happened like this: Beginning in the late ’50s and early ’60s, an overreliance on newly approved psych meds and the court-ordered curtailment of involuntary psychiatric commitments set the table for what was to come. Then a network of community health centers called for in 1963 by JFK’s Community Mental Health Act and meant to assist deinstitutionalized patients was underfunded due to economic crisis and the Vietnam War. The Medicaid and Medicare acts of 1965 made poor, mentally disabled people living in the community eligible for federal benefits, further encouraging the discharge of patients from state facilities. Then, in 1981, leaning on the playbook he’d used as governor of California to dismantle that state’s mental health network, President Ronald Reagan, in an effort to further slash federal spending, pushed responsibility for the mentally ill back to the states, with predictable results. It was a perfect storm. Seemingly overnight, America had a population of people known thereafter as The Homeless.

That much is conventional wisdom, but what’s less understood by the general public is that the primary driver of homelessness isn’t drug addiction or mental illness. It’s an acute shortage of affordable housing, and Ronald Reagan had a big role in that. “Homelessness began with the first Reagan budget that decimated HUD,” says Marcella Maguire, director of health systems integration at the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a national organization working to provide housing to vulnerable people.

As was true of most major cities, Philadelphia’s response to the flood of people living on the streets was to construct a shelter system. It was considered a temporary fix to a crisis that has persisted for 40 years. “Shelters are very expensive to run, and people don’t really love them all that much,” says the Kenney administration’s Hersh. “And the outcomes are nowhere near as good as in housing-first models we’ve adopted.” Ultimately, shelters don’t end homelessness; they just render it invisible, meaning that the crisis that began in the ’80s was never solved so much as hidden away.

A significant portion of the city’s unsheltered homeless population lives on the streets of Kensington. Much has been written about how the neighborhood devolved into what the New York Times Magazine ominously described in 2018 as the “Walmart of heroin,” but the short version is that Kensington was once a thriving working-class neighborhood lined with factories. When the bottom fell out of the nation’s manufacturing base in the 1950s, those factories closed, poverty soared, and by the ’60s, there were thousands of abandoned buildings that would eventually become the retail infrastructure for a thriving open-air drug marketplace that attracted one narco syndicate after another. And by the dawn of the 21st century, Big Pharma, the biggest and baddest syndicate of them all, brought enough ultra-potent, super-addictive prescription opioid painkillers to wreck a nation. Kensington never stood a chance. People came from all over the city and suburbs, and in due time from all up and down the Eastern Seaboard and points beyond, to sample the wares.

Many never left.

homeless philadelphia

Pearl Street between 11th and 12th. Photograph by Jeffrey Stockbridge

Within a decade, there was a vast encampment of people both homeless and addicted to opiates in the overgrown wilds of the Conrail tracks that run along Gurney Street and are known as El Campamento. It was there that many, many people sold drugs, bought drugs, injected drugs, traded sex for drugs and died from drugs. It was, by all accounts, Grand ­Guignol — and that was on a good day. When the city finally shut down El Campamento in the summer of 2017, new mini-versions popped up whack-a-mole-style in the underpasses at Frankford, Kensington, Tulip and Emerald streets. By January of 2019, the city had shut those down, too.

While it’s generally agreed that the city closed the encampments humanely and responsibly, opening shelters and connecting residents to medical and drug treatment services if they wanted them, the inevitable result was a diaspora of the afflicted and unsheltered. “Half of them are in treatment or housing, 75 percent are in services and connected, and there is a portion of them never seen again,” Hersh says when asked where all the people from the camps wound up. It’s impossible to know where everyone went, but after years of slow but steady decline in the size of the downtown homeless/panhandler population, it’s been growing for the past four years in a row.

Once these people arrived, multiple factors already in play aggravated the situation, starting with decades of massive disinvestment in affordable housing at the federal level dating back to the Reagan administration. In the wake of the Great Recession in 2008, the city slashed its housing budget by $30 million, according to Hersh. Efforts to criminalize panhandling in cities across America have been thwarted by court rulings declaring it a form of free speech. Likewise, federal courts have ruled that homeless bans are unconstitutional. And that’s the Cliffs Notes version of how we got to where we are today.

Andrea Stone, a 34-year-old mother of three from Juniata, would be the first to acknowledge that her life has been a toxic combination of bad choices, bad chemicals and bad men. Though she’s currently on methadone, she has a history of substance abuse stretching back to her first pregnancy at 16. She’s been living on a mattress at the bottom of the I-95 off-ramp beneath the underpass at 7th and Vine for the past year and a half with her boyfriend, Timothy. In that time, they conceived, and in November, she gave birth to her third child. When I talked to her in December, her newborn was at Jefferson Hospital, under observation for methadone withdrawal.

Andrea’s daily routine: Wake up, panhandle enough to buy some breakfast at Wawa, go to Jeff to see her son, get her daily dose of methadone in the Gayborhood, panhandle enough to buy some dinner at Wawa. Then do it all over again tomorrow.

She says she chose such a highly visible place to lay her head in hopes of attracting the attention of the city’s homeless outreach workers. “I thought in Philadelphia, it would be easier to get help and to get housing,” she says, sucking on a candy cane as cars whiz by in a near-constant whoosh of white noise. “Outreach would come and promise us this, promise us that.” But for whatever reason, she remains on the street. Eventually, Andrea and Timothy came up with an escape plan: They would take his brother up on his offer to come get them and take them back to live with him in Florida, where they would detox and start their lives over. But a week before Christmas, Timothy got locked up on an outstanding warrant — at least, Andrea thinks that’s what happened. One day he went to the Wawa and never came back. Now, she doesn’t know what she’ll do.

According to Liz Hersh, the city has a three-pronged plan to tackle the homeless crisis: prevention (providing mediation and a financial backstop for people facing eviction because of unpaid rent); crisis response (person-to-person outreach to get people off the street and into emergency shelters and connect them with medical attention, psychiatric care and drug treatment); and long-term housing (placing people in supportive housing, which has a sliding-scale rent subsidy combined with wraparound health care and social services). “The old thinking was that you had to deserve housing — you had to prove you were clean and sober,” Hersh says, one crisp sunny morning back in December on the 10th floor of the Municipal Services Building. “But what we found is that for many people, it’s just too hard; it doesn’t work. What does work is to have people come in first and have their needs met, and they can catch their breath and get some sleep, and then the recovery process is much more accessible.”

The good news is, this approach has proven very effective — 90 percent of the people the city has put in supportive housing never return to the street, Hersh says. The bad news is, the demand far outstrips the supply. Despite the city’s Office of Homeless Services 2019 budget of roughly $91 million, for every person they connect with housing and services, three people wait in a metaphorical line that will never end at current funding levels.

The city — in tandem with the combined heroic efforts of nonprofit Good Samaritans like Project HOME, the Broad Street Ministry, Angels In Motion, Prevention Point, and more I wish I had the space to tell you about — appears to have slowed if not altogether stilled the surge. In 2017, there was a 36 percent increase in homeless people over the previous year. The next year saw a 13 percent jump. This year, the increase was five percent. Since its inception in April of 2018, the Ambassadors of Hope outreach program — a joint effort by the Center City District, Project HOME, and the Philadelphia Police Department — has convinced 320 people to come in out of the night. And according to Hersh, the number of homeless in Kensington dropped significantly over the course of last summer.

“One thing we learned by following people by name is that half the people on the street in Kensington and Center City aren’t chronically homeless,” says Hersh. “They’re seen by outreach once, maybe twice, and are never seen again.” There are other victories and signs the indicators are moving in the right direction. Those 1,116 drug overdose deaths in 2018 were about a hundred less than the previous year. This eight percent drop in fatalities is largely attributable to naloxone, known as Narcan, a miracle drug that, provided it’s administered in time, can reverse an overdose in minutes. In 2018, the Philadelphia fire department, police department and EMS administered Narcan 4,289 times. Since July 2017, the city’s Department of Public Health has distributed more than 122,700 doses of Narcan to police, community organizations, and just about anyone who’s asked for it.

To put all this in perspective, at just north of 5,700, Philadelphia’s homeless population is relatively small compared to those in other major American cities. New York City has nearly 80,000 homeless. In Los Angeles County, the homeless population has skyrocketed to 59,000, with 44,000 people living on the streets. San Francisco has 17,595 homeless; Seattle’s King County has 11,200. All told, there are more than half a million homeless people in America. We don’t even make the Top 10.

Still, there’s a structural defect in the city’s response to rampant homelessness that has rendered the problem intractable to date. “I now work in communities across the country, and most have housing but not services. Philly is the exact opposite,” says Marcella Maguire, who, prior to her current position at CHS, managed health and homeless services for the city for nearly 20 years. “Philly has services, but it doesn’t have the housing.”

The City of Philadelphia is no longer in the business of building housing; instead, it relies on two public/private initiatives to create permanent housing. The first is what’s called a “tenant-based” solution — subsidizing rents in existing rental housing stock, where there are 5,158 beds. This gets expensive, because half of the people in the OHS system have zero income. The second is a “project-based” solution, which basically means giving tax breaks to developers who integrate affordable housing into the matrix of new construction projects. Last year, the city added 200 affordable units, and OHS got 10 percent of that newly constructed housing, or 20 units, for a grand total of: simply not enough to meet the current demand.

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12th and Market in December 2019. Photograph by Jeffrey Stockbridge

According to Liz Hersh, there’s currently a 2,500-unit shortfall in the city’s stock of permanent supportive housing earmarked for the homeless — meaning that at any given point in time, there could be as many as 2,500 people stuck in the pipeline that moves people from the street to permanent housing. “The ‘clogged pipe’ is the metaphor we use,” says Hersh. “The short answer to the question, ‘Why are there 1,000 people on the street?’ is that we don’t have anywhere for them to live.”

So how much would it cost to close that housing gap? “With an additional $31 million a year, we could end chronic street homelessness in Philadelphia as we currently know it,” Hersh says.

“The short answer to the question, ‘Why are there 1,000 people on the street?’ is that we don’t have anywhere for them to live,” says the Kenney administration’s Liz Hersh. “With an additional $31 million a year, we could end chronic street homelessness.”

That doesn’t seem like an exorbitant amount of money in an annual city budget of $5 billion, I tell her. There isn’t $31 million in fat somewhere in the ledger that could be trimmed and shifted over to OHS?

“That’s more of a politics question,” she says. “A budget is a statement of values. It says what is most important to us and what we want to get done. In Philadelphia, we do have a limited tax base and a lot of needs — a lot of potholes, a lot of disintegrating housing and a lot of trash. So we are trying to balance all those needs. … Let me put it this way: It would be extremely helpful if the federal and state governments were real partners with us on this. Is that the only way? I don’t know.”

The Convention Center, in conjunction with stakeholders like Wawa and PREIT — the developers behind the newly minted Fashion District — is spearheading a new public/private initiative called Philly Cares to help close this funding gap. It will match, dollar for dollar, every contribution that Center City businesses pony up for the cause, up to $500,000. It’s noble and well-intentioned, but the reality is that another million or $2 million or even $5 million isn’t a cure; it’s a Band-Aid. The Kenney administration recently pledged $88 million over the next five years to housing concerns including homeless services. But we can do more. There are a number of deep-pocketed corporate and institutional entities in this town that benefit from the perception of Philadelphia as a place compassionate and innovative enough to figure this out.

Everybody I spoke with for this article who studies this problem for a living thinks it’s fixable — that with enough political will and the necessary super-funding, we could end homelessness as we now know it, and that “one nice door” could open for Kenny and Andrea and April. But it all comes back to housing. “If some small portion of the $2 trillion we’ve spent on Afghanistan was spent on housing, we’d be done with homelessness,” says Maguire. “Philadelphia doesn’t have the resources to create the housing needed. They have lost the flow. They used to be able to flow people through the system — from the street to shelters to treatment and services to supportive housing. But without that backstop of affordable housing at the end, people get stuck — in treatment, in recovery houses, in shelters. And new people are coming on the street every day.”

Homelessness in Philadelphia isn’t just a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis or a nuisance crime magnet or a civic eyesore; it’s immoral that it has come to be accepted as a permanent fixture of modern urban living when it simply doesn’t have to be. Furthermore, it represents an existential threat to the city’s future. For every day this problem goes unsolved — with every new person who comes onto the street, sleeps in doorways, and dies addicted, afraid and alone — the ongoing renaissance of the City of Brotherly Love grows a little less certain, a little more precarious. Worse, we forsake the implicit covenant of our name.

Lastly, there is the psychic toll that homelessness exacts on all of us. What really troubles people when they see the homeless is what they say about us — as a city, as a society. Homelessness forces us to ask difficult questions like: How can we continue to merrily go about our lives in the face of so much abject suffering? After 40 years, why is the richest nation on Earth still unwilling to marshal the political will, the readily available funds and the moral courage to, as JFK once said, “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” to end this? Have we completely lost touch with our Quaker roots?

Back on the street, the end of homelessness as we currently know it can’t come soon enough for Steve Chamberlin, a 47-year-old Deptford native who’s been homeless on and off since 1998. Steve is Kenny’s wingman on the 676 off-ramp at 8th and Vine. (And just so you know, they’ve taken Andrea under their aegis until she’s back on her feet.) He says the reason he’s still on the street is simple: He has nowhere to go. Everyone in his family has passed away except for his aunt, and she won’t talk to him anymore. Her son died of a heroin overdose years ago, so she has zero tolerance for drug users. The cruel irony is that Steve doesn’t do drugs anymore. Like Kenny, he says he’s kicked his heroin addiction with the help of ­suboxone.

For Steve, the worst part of being homeless is that his customers expect him to look the part. “If anyone gives you nice clothes or new sneaks, you can’t even wear them, because nobody will give you money,” he says. “You can’t shower, you can’t shave — you have to be a total dirtball or they just drive by and laugh at you. Somebody gave me new sneaks, and people just laughed at me for three months. You just feel like jumping off the bridge.”

Last year was a rough one for Steve, who was in and out of the hospital with serious health problems. Today, he seems to be at the end of his rope. “I’m just struggling every day,” he says, his eyes welling up, his voice breaking with emotion. “I just wish I had someone in my family that would say, ‘Hey, come home.’ I’m so done with this, so fed-up, so ready to fucking be done with it. Today’s Friday. Hopefully I won’t wake up tomorrow.”

Published as “Homelessness and the Heart of the City” in the February 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.