Can closing homeless encampments help Philadelphia’s opioid problem?

According to a new report, the city’s recent effort opened up treatment spots for people with opioid addiction and offered permanent and temporary housing options.

People standing in a group outside, with winter coats and orange vests, in front of a tent and plastic bags.
A report authored by Dennis Culhane of the School of Social Policy & Practice and David Metzger of the Perelman School of Medicine shows that shuttering two camps led to many new addiction-treatment slots and some successful placements in permanent or temporary housing. (Photo: City of Philadelphia)

At the end of January, the last of four homeless encampments in the northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington was cleared by the city government, part of an eight-month effort to provide shelter and drug-addiction treatment to the people living in these areas. The first two shuttered encampments, on Kensington Avenue and Tulip Street, were also part of a city-funded independent assessment led by Dennis Culhane of Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice and David Metzger of the Perelman School of Medicine

“We were the eyes and ears on this process,” says Culhane, the Dana and Andrew Stone Chair in Social Policy.

Dennis Culhane
Dennis Culhane, professor at the School of Social Policy & Practice.

In a report published in early March, Culhane and colleagues describe a successful project, though one with its expected challenges. “Many of the people impacted accessed services,” he says. “Some got into permanent housing, more got into temporary housing, and there was a whole segment of people not engaged at all, which is maybe not that surprising. Having a positive housing outcome is always going to be daunting.” 

Beyond that, an overarching goal of the city was to offer more medically assisted treatment options for opioid addiction, which has led to thousands of overdoses across Philadelphia in recent years and affected nearly three-quarters of the people the Penn research team interacted with during its review. “Treatment access opened up much more significantly as a result of this process,” Culhane says, “and the City of Philadelphia’s emergency declaration last fall also created more treatment slots.” 

The encampment closure process was partly successful because the city didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, instead following the approaches of other large cities like San Francisco that have cleared many encampments. Overall, notes Culhane, it was a sophisticated, community-engaged approach accompanied by a caring attitude aimed at a complex problem. 

The full report, entitled, “An Evaluation of the City of Philadelphia’s Kensington Encampment Resolution Pilot,” is available here

This work was funded by the City of Philadelphia. 

Dennis Culhane is the Dana and Andrew Stone Chair in Social Policy and co-principal investigator of Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy, part of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania

David Metzger is a research professor and director of the HIV Prevention Research Division in the Department of Psychiatry of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also co-director of the Penn Mental Health AIDS Research Center. 

Other researchers involved in the project include Meagan Cusack of the Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Fritz Graham, a doctoral student in Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice; and Stephen Metraux of the University of Delaware, who was the lead author on the report.