After a protracted battle over how to clean up a notorious train trench that has been co-oped by some of Philadelphia's most vulnerable victims of the opioid epidemic as a place to use drugs and live, crews began Monday clearing and securing the area known by many as "The Tracks."
Conrail, which owns the trench that slices west to east between E. Tusculum and E. Gurney streets in the city's Kensington and Fairhill neighborhoods, moved in heavy construction equipment early Monday and built a staging area near Kensington Avenue.
It marks the beginning of a one month clean up project that will include removal of tons of debris and trash, countless used syringes and a lockdown of the trench's perimeter.
Stretching for nearly three-quarters of a mile, the trench has for years been a place for the drug addicted to get high mostly out of sight from police and neighbors. The steep earthen sides are shielded from the street by trees and heavy brush. Those who venture down onto the tracks are at risk of becoming victims of sexual assault, robbery and homicide.
On its western end, adjacent to and under the N. 2nd Street bridge, a homeless encampment — known as a El Campamento — has shacks made out of wooden pallets. In some cases, people sleep on mattresses among trash, human excrement and used needles.
NBC10 went inside the encampment and trench as part of the award-winning digital investigation, Generation Addicted.
With the heroin and opioid crisis worsening, overdose deaths along the tracks have mounted. Last year, 17 people died in the trench from drug overdoses.
For years, officials played round robin over who should be responsible for cleaning and securing the area. With increased attention focused on the trench from local and national journalists and cries from activists reverberating louder, city officials and Conrail announced they would clear the area.
Seven months of negotiations carried on before Conrail said in June it would clear brush and trash and erect a prison-grade fence on street level to prevent trespassing, among other efforts.
Conrail couldn't put together a total for the cleanup effort, saying it's still working to finalize contractor costs, but said the fence alone will have a price tag around $90,000.
Philadelphia police will step up bike patrols from the street level as well.
As part of the cleanup project, the city also announced it would seal vacant buildings in the surrounding area, fix street lights and make other quality of life improvements to deter open-air drug use. Neighbors have long complained of the city neglecting the area effectively labeling any chances of improvement as hopeless. The city pegged the cost of the neighborhood revitalization at more than $830,000.
City officials said they will be providing services like food, homeless shelter placement and access to drug rehabilitation programs to those who are removed from The Tracks as part of the cleanup project.
Trailers will be positioned at the corner of 2nd and Indiana through Wednesday to provide these services. A mobile trailer will also be placed daily at Tusculum and A streets for the entire cleanup process, city officials said.
Philadelphia's Health and Human Services departments said 84 people accepted city assistance since officials increased outreach efforts in early May.
Mayor Jim Kenney's office said at least 15 more people were provided city services on Monday.
As work began along The Tracks, two new reports showcased the dire stakes of America's opioid crisis.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that one in three Americans used prescription opioid painkillers like OxyContin or Vicodin in 2015. That equates to 91.8 million people. Nearly five percent of those surveyed said they took the controlled substances without having a prescription.
The Trump Administration's Opioid Commission, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, also released an interim report Monday urging President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency.
"Declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act. With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks," the report read.
Other recommendations include rapidly adding treatment capacity, mandating opioid prescribing training for all physicians and better funding medication-assisted treatment like methadone and Suboxone therapy.