In Kensington, residents ask, ‘Why would you think this is acceptable for us?’
Photos and words by Erin Blewett for Kensington Voice
Harrowgate resident Sonja Bingham begins every day before sunrise with a shovel and broom in one hand and a 40-gallon trash bag in the other. She often jokes about sending the City of Philadelphia an invoice for all of the hours she spends cleaning and advocating for her community.
“My experience has been an exhausting fight,” Bingham said. “Every single day I get up, I clean up whatever feces, urine, trash, clothing, and graffiti is on my block. I patrol the neighborhood, submit 311 reports, and send emails to the Mayor’s Office, Managing Director’s Office, police department, and City Council.”
Over the last two years, Bingham, who is a block captain and member of the Harrowgate Civic Association, has attended community meetings, participated on advisory boards, led street cleanups, and more to help the City resolve the decades-long housing and overdose crises.
“Nobody in Center City, Fairmount, Spring Garden, Mount Airy, Rittenhouse, none of those communities are vilified when they cry out [about the impact of homelessness],” Bingham said. “Like the Center City encampments, residents there said that this is not right because they want to use their park. They want to use their park, just like we want to get to work. We want to get to school. We want to be able to get to the pharmacy.”
Bingham feels that when people speak up about neighborhood issues in wealthy neighborhoods, like Center City — where residents are predominately white — the City resolves them. But in the Kensington area, which has some of the highest poverty rates in the city and where a majority of residents are not white, the City forces them to wait for solutions.
For example, last September, the City diffused a summer-long encampment protest in Center City by agreeing to provide 50 Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) units to people experiencing homelessness in Center City, among other means of providing housing.
‘You don’t see this anywhere else’
Eduardo Esquivel, the president of the Kensington Neighborhood Association, agrees with Bingham — that problems like addiction and homelessness are not unique to Kensington.
“There are a lot of folks in the Northeast, in Bucks County, Montgomery County, and from all over the region who are suffering from opioid use disorder,” Esquivel said. “But you don’t see this anywhere else. And so I think you have to look at why, you have to look at what’s going on.”
Esquivel points to a long history of the City disinvesting in Kensington. He points to a recent letter to the city by fellow Kensington resident, Bill McKinney. In the letter, McKinney described a 100-plus-year history of neighborhood oppression, including the factory owners’ exploitation of laborers and now a multi-million-dollar drug trade. All of these issues, he said, within a community experiencing such high rates of poverty, have contributed to the current state of the neighborhood.
According to Esquivel, just like certain neighborhoods benefited from legalized segregation through redlining and racially restrictive language in property deeds, the surrounding neighborhoods and counties have benefited from crises being contained to other places, like Kensington.
“It’s really convenient for everything to be here, versus a little bit in Bryn Mawr, and a little bit in Levittown, and a little bit over here and a little bit over there,” Esquivel said. “Those folks have been able to push that away from them and say, ‘Nope, we won’t have that here,’ and then it lands in one place.”
Buying, using, and recovering in the same neighborhood
While Kensington is still the centralized location in Philadelphia for buying and using drugs, some community members, like Bingham, don’t believe the neighborhood is the ideal place to get treatment and maintain recovery.
“You can’t buy, use, and recover in the same neighborhood,” Bingham said.
Instead of continuing to centralize all services in Kensington, she points to the empty Hahnemann University Hospital building on Vine Street in Center City, purchased for $170 million by a Californian businessman in 2018, which soon after went bankrupt and closed in 2019.
“Put them in the hospital. It’s huge; it’s empty; nobody’s in there,” Bingham said. “Because you have offices, as well as medical facilities there — you set up offices, you get mental health, you get job counseling, you get all the training and support services right there in one facility.”
Additionally, Bingham would like the City to provide more support and incentives for people who engage in treatment and recovery. As the City prepares to distribute an unprecedented $10 million in housing vouchers to people experiencing homelessness, Bingham feels that the City is in the right place to better support people.