PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The City of Philadelphia joined officials from Conrail on Monday to take the first step in a multi-pronged strategic effort to clean up the infamous railroad tracks in Fairhill frequented by heroin users. It marks the beginning of a long journey.
The more than half-a-mile stretch of Conrail railroad tracks near B Street is rife with heroin needles and debris. Makeshift shelters are hidden in corners, with mattresses and drug use materials in trees and overgrown weeds. But over the next few weeks, all of the trash, needles, shelters and more will be no more.
“We’re not going to just clean up and leave,” says Jonathon Broder, Chief Legal officer of Conrail.
Broder told press and community advocates present at a presser Monday at 2nd and Indiana that the company is putting up $90,000 worth of fencing at seven overpasses, removing trees and greener and picking up and hauling out trash along the B Street tracks. He says Conrail has made the effort on more than one occasion in the past, but this time they have a long-term strategy, which includes a partnership with the city and community groups like HACE.
“They will be physically present and we will be supporting them,” says Broder.
For the city’s part, multiple departments have been working to deal with the infamous tracks where insiders say scores of heroin users and other homeless individuals live. Many more come to the area to use drugs, evidence of their drug use, thousands of hypodermic needles and packaging is everywhere. City officials acknowledge that once the tracks are secured with fencing, they’ll need to increase police presence to keep people off the tracks and then find a place for the individuals to go.
“We are eliminating a situation that attracted drug users to the neighborhood from across the region,” says Mike DiBenardinis, City Managing Director. “We want to lift up this problem- we want to treat the people who are addicted.”
He says the city is bringing in the Police Department, Streets Department, Licenses and Inspection, Department of Behavioral Health and the Office of Housing to do the on the ground work. There will be more police, ongoing cleanup, homeless outreach and recovery and mental health services available.
“We are here for the long haul. We are committed to this neighborhood and to the people who live here,” he says, “this is just step one in a very long journey.”
The Office of Housing and Supportive Services announced it is dedicated $750,000 to homeless outreach. It will also provide 15 housing slots for individuals with opioid addiction and 17 slots for rapid rehousing. In addition, the Department of Behavioral Health will increase recovery beds from 300 to 333 and expand facilities at halfway houses. There will also be social services support in the community and for the residents who live in the neighborhood.
“Behind the aesthetics there are people,” says City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, “this journey is about the people who are trapped in here and deserve safe streets.”
Community residents launched an effort called “El Barrio Nuestro,” a neighbor driven effort to reclaim the streets. The residents clean up and opened up “play streets” so that kids in the neighborhood can get free meals and snacks.
Former Fairhill resident turned community advocate Charito Morales took reporters and others on tours of the tracks. She says this effort gives hope: “It’s not today for tomorrow, but it’s going to be happening.”
While total cost of this effort is unclear at this point, city officials estimate the total investment will be in the millions of dollars.