PHILADELPHIA — The City of Philadelphia released an independent report today from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzing the City’s encampment resolution pilot program in the Kensington neighborhood.
The report looks comprehensively at the first two encampment closures that occurred in spring 2018.
Learning from the initial closure process, the City later closed two additional encampments, the last on January 31, 2019.
“This study is unprecedented in the detail with which we documented the process of closing the encampments and in following its impacts, both on the people displaced by the closures and the community surrounding the encampment sites,” said Stephen Metraux, a professor at the University of Delaware’s Biden School of Public Policy and Administration who led the evaluation.
Coupling the availability of services with closing encampments is the defining feature of the approach, researchers explained about Philadelphia’s innovative strategies. Those services included bringing treatment on site, helping encampment residents obtain ID to more readily access services later, providing first aid and wound care especially to intravenous drug users, and providing transportation to shelter and other service sites.
As a result, about half of the encampment residents are still engaged in treatment or shelter services.
“This report shows that fostering cooperation across City agencies is vital to keeping our neighborhoods safe and improving quality-of-life for everyone,” said Managing Director Brian Abernathy. “For too long, people have been presented a false choice, that either we can either prioritize safety or help people with compassion. This report shows we can do both so long as we listen to our neighborhood residents, hear the concerns of advocates, and work together as one community.”
“The encampments were both a problem relating to America’s opioid crisis and our nation’s ongoing homelessness crisis,” explained Office of Homeless Services Director Liz Hersh. “57 percent of encampment residents had previously spent time in a homeless shelter, so it was vital that we as a City work together to develop dynamic solutions. We’re a city of firsts, and we should be extremely proud of what we’ve done together getting so many people help, whether that means shelter, treatment, housing, or other services — and humbled by the work ahead.”
The report outlines the effectiveness of Philadelphia’s strategies, especially creating a by-name list of those on the street and polling data of former encampment residents.
Researchers used five primary data collection activities for a comprehensive look from multiple angles along with candid interviews with City officials, neighborhood residents, advocates, and encampment residents. They also attended neighborhood meetings and other community events.
“Based on our access to many planning meetings, officials and staff, and field settings relating to implementing the Encampment Resolution Pilot,” researchers noted, “we observed a high and, in our experience, unusual degree of coordination and cooperation across an array of services.”
The report highlights that:
- 84 percent of surveyed encampment residents were Philadelphians; 65 percent were originally from Philadelphia with another 19 percent having already lived in Philadelphia for at least a year.
- 62 percent interacted with outreach workers to some degree and had a direct opportunity to engage in services.
- 57 percent were white, 31 percent were Black, and 12 percent were Latino.
- 93 percent reported active drug use: 79 percent reported using opioids; 43 percent reported using cocaine; and, 25 percent reported using alcohol.
- 65 percent expressed mental health challenges, with researchers estimating that a third have severe challenges like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.
- 57 percent previously spent time in a homeless shelter; 40 percent of encampment residents surveyed were homeless for over one year, meeting the federal definition of chronic homelessness.
These numbers in the report reflect a period from May through October 2018 and numbers of those seeking housing or treatment have increased since then.
Overall, the report praises Philadelphia’s innovative approach while still acknowledging ongoing challenges for the City relating to data collection, permanent affordable housing opportunities for those with extremely low or nonexistent incomes, and developing long-term solutions.
Researchers also note the critical role police played in the herculean effort and suggested the need for stronger support and clearer guidance for law enforcement moving forward.
“The study should be of interest to those looking for an approach to closing homeless encampments that addresses the needs of those living in and nearby the encampments, and the challenges that such a process faces,” Metraux added.
The research team from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice included Stephen Metraux, Ph.D.; Meagan Cusack, M.S.; Fritz Graham, M.P.H.; David Metzger, Ph.D.; and, Dennis Culhane, Ph.D.
The City of Philadelphia funded the report.
A blog summarizing the report is available online on the City’s website.