The Parker administration claims the cleanup in Kensington was disrupted by activists

A tense encounter between police and homeless advocates precipitated the dismantling of the Kensington encampment last week, according to Mayor Cherelle L. Parker’s administration and witnesses, who said the event changed cleanup plans and led to people scattering across the area.

However, the parties describe the morning incident in a completely different way.

According to a joint statement issued by Parker’s office and the Philadelphia Police Department, officers were securing an area around two blocks of Kensington Avenue last Wednesday morning when a half-dozen supporters refused orders to move. Officials said officers pushed them away on bicycles, and as they did so, residents of the block voluntarily left amid the discord.

But eight people who were there said in interviews that officers told street residents to leave the area, even though city social services workers had not yet arrived. Witnesses said sanitation workers poured water on the street and used a leaf blower near people sitting or lying on the sidewalk, causing them to flee before rescue crews arrived.

Officials had said for weeks that the trial would be handled by city social workers, but none of them were on site when police arrived just before 7 a.m.

The Parker administration’s explanation as to why comes after an examination of how the city handled the cleanup of the encampment, the mayor’s most observable action to dismantle a years-long open-air drug market in Kensington.

Lawmakers said they were confused why aid teams did not lead the operation. Residents complained that people who lived on the avenue ended up in neighboring apartment blocks. The Citizens’ Police Oversight Commission expressed “deep concern” and said it would conduct an investigation into the glade.

However, the Parker administration said efforts in the 3000 and 3100 blocks of Kensington Avenue were successful. Relief teams worked day and night to locate people in nearby apartment blocks and provide them with medical services, treatment and shelter. According to the administration, on Wednesday alone, 31 people were placed in shelters or for treatment – a total of 59 since the beginning of April.

And despite concerns that addicts could be imprisoned for minor crimes, no one was arrested.

City Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, a Democrat representing Kensington, gave an impassioned speech Thursday in defense of city workers, saying they “did what they were trained to do and went out looking for people.”

She said dozens of families could sleep better last week knowing that their loved ones who had been living on the streets had received shelter, at least for a while.

“Maybe it wasn’t what I wanted to see, maybe it wasn’t what the community wanted to see, maybe it wasn’t an ideal situation, people could still be in the area. But we responded,” Lozada said. “I hope that the residents of Kensington, this administration and all of you will remain committed to fighting for a better quality of life for the children and families of this community.”

” READ MORE: Philadelphia police and city workers cleared up an encampment in Kensington on Wednesday

Others, especially those who work on harm reduction, a public health strategy aimed at keeping drug users alive until they are ready to enter treatment, are much more critical of the operation.

Sarah Laurel, executive director of Savage Sisters, a nonprofit that offers wound care and other harm reduction services, said the settlements were more accountable to law enforcement than previous settlements. She took videos of officers taking people outside the fenced area without city workers.

About an hour later, city authorities and police searched the depopulated area.

“It looked like a photo shoot,” Laurel said, “and it was like nothing else.”

Controversial meeting between police and lawyers

Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said about a month ago, when the city posted notices to clear the Kensington Avenue encampment, about 75 people lived in the area. Some had agreed to housing or treatment before last Wednesday, and the city expected to work with about 20 people still camped on the sidewalks.

Outreach teams of social workers and behavioral health specialists were scheduled to meet with officers supporting their work at 8 a.m., and teams were scheduled to begin contacting apartment residents around 8:30 a.m. Sanitation teams were scheduled to clean the area and remove debris at 10am

On Wednesday, Philadelphia Police officers arrived just before 7 a.m. to set up barriers and secure the area, which the city said is standard procedure for various events, including camp clearings.

According to the mayor’s office and police, six to 10 people who identified themselves as aid workers and advocates “attempted to obstruct officers as they set up a perimeter using police tape and bicycles.” Police said officers told lawyers they were not removing people from the camp and that social workers were on the way.

Some of the supporters in question were part of a group called Concerned Harm Reductionists United, a coalition of people who work in Kensington and who were there to support homeless people by helping them pack their belongings, providing water and clothing, and offering transportation to shelters or treatment.

They worked with Aine Fox, a legal observer with the Up Against the Law Legal Collective who has attended protests and other public events to support activists’ rights for over a decade.

Fox said police contacted lawyers and told them to leave the cordoned off area. She said she saw and heard a police officer say to people standing outside the tents, “You need to move.”

“The idea that we have interfered with services is absolutely absurd,” Fox said. “The officers never conveyed to us that they were not telling people to leave.”

When supporters refused to leave, officers used bicycles as barriers and forced them off Kensington Avenue and onto a side street.

Surveillance footage seen by The Inquirer shows about a half-dozen officers carrying the four attorneys away. Another video shows officers escorting people into side streets. A woman who lives on the alley can be heard saying, “There’s a whole bunch of cops here, but no one can facilitate us.”

A few supporters remained in the cordoned off area and continued to help the camp residents. Eva Fitch, one of the harm reduction advocates, said street sweepers and city workers using leaf blowers then moved into the camp.

“There was no option to stay,” Fitch said. “People were surrounded by police, e.g [city workers] “they dipped their belongings in street water and blew them away with leaf blowers.”

City emergency teams arrived at the scene around 8 a.m. after many people living on the street had left the area. Officials said social workers searched the area for hours, locating people on side streets and apartment buildings to refer them to treatment.

The city is checking the state of affairs

During previous camp cleanups – there have been five large clearings in the area since 2017 – it was city policy for city workers to also pack and store people’s personal belongings for at least 30 days while they are being treated or sheltered.

On Wednesday, sanitation workers threw away items left on sidewalks after people dispersed.

According to a statement from Parker’s administration, the room was cleaned early due to “an unexpected activity that precipitated the action.” The authorities are “investigating all issues related to the belongings of people who voluntarily left the camp,” the statement reads.

Councilor Nicolas O’Rourke, a member of the progressive Working Families Party, expressed concern that city workers may have thrown away important documents or other personal items belonging to people who were denied housing, saying: “Why would we be so dismissive of human belongings?”

He was referring to Parker’s comments indicating that her Kensington strategy is a work in progress.

“They said we were going to make mistakes,” O’Rourke said. “I feel like we say all these things to cover up when we do it because we expect to do it. “I don’t think it’s good faith and I don’t think it’s good management.”

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