From the cobblestone streets of Elfreth Alley to the daisy meadows at Franklin Square, Philadelphia has become renowned for its rich historical beauty. It’s no surprise that many students find solace in traversing Reading Terminal Market or taking a leisurely stroll through Old City. However, while many residents take pride in their city’s charm, its aesthetic allure conceals a more somber history of economic disparity and insurmountable hardship. 

Deemed ‘America’s poorest big city’ by WHYY News, Philadelphia currently has the highest poverty rate out of the top ten most populous cities across the United States. Homelessness has continued to afflict vulnerable communities throughout the region amidst the city’s rising drug crisis. Considered the epicenter of Philly‘s opioid epidemic, Kensington has become a hotspot for drug use and violent crime. As more potent substances such as fentanyl and tranq have emerged in the drug scene, the neighborhood has seen heightened numbers of unhoused drug addicts camping out on the street. 

As the crisis in Kensington continues, the city has witnessed an upward trend in the number of drug users dying from lethal overdoses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose mortality rates hit a record high in 2021, with 5,449 deaths occurring across the state. In a further analysis, The Philadelphia Inquirer ascertained that Kensington has one the worst violent and drug crime rates within the city.

Disenchanted with former political missteps, Mayor Cherelle Parker has centered her campaign around addressing the Kensington crisis with a sense of urgency and purpose. In her first budget address in March, Parker said, “I want to make Kensington a neighborhood of choice and beacon of pride again.” 

While her promise to end Kensington’s open–air market was initially met with widespread support, her rumored plans to expand long–term treatment and housing for Kensington’s unhoused population into Philly‘s Fairmount community has led to an outpouring of residential backlash and political criticism. 

In a breaking report published by the Inquirer earlier this month, it was alleged that Parker’s administration had plans to expand the former Fairmount Philadelphia Nursing Home at 2100 W. Girard Ave. into a “triage center” for unhoused drug addicts. While the city officially shut down the nursing home in 2022, it has since been operating as a men’s homeless shelter under the nonprofit Resources for Human Development

The city’s decision to add approximately 90 beds to the shelter coincides with administrative officials‘ plans to begin clearing homeless encampments in Kensington. Despite Parker’s insistence that the site is not operating as a covert drug triage center, Fairmount residents have remained outspoken advocates against the new development and its potential implications on residential safety. On May 7, community resident Bradley Mayer launched a petition demanding that Parker cease all further work on the shelter until there was greater dialogue between administrative officials and local residents. 

“The lack of community engagement in this process is alarming. We believe that our voices should be heard before such significant decisions are made about our neighborhood‘s future,” Mayer wrote. 

Since its publication, the petition has garnered 1,279 signatures from residents hoping to halt the center’s expansion until further notice. In response to concerns, city officials listened to residential concerns during a town meeting on May 14 along with representatives from the Fairmount Civic Association. Frustrated with the administration’s lack of transparency and disregard for public input, many residents voiced fears about how the center’s expansion would impact personal and public safety throughout the neighborhood. 

President of the Fairmount Civic Association Tim Butters has continued to field mounting residential concerns as public dissent against the expansion of the former nursing home persists.

“[Residents‘] main concerns are the safety and cleanliness of surrounding neighbors,” Butters said. “We’ve seen an increase since April in homeless people interactions. We’ve had several overdoses on neighbors’ steps. We’ve had needles and other drug bags found around the facility, and we just want to make sure that the neighborhood’s safe for people and kids. There’s three schools right around the area and we don’t want anybody to get hurt or feel unsafe in the neighborhood.”

Prior to the town meeting, Butters met with the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Tiffany Thurman and the administration’s Managing Director Adam Thiel to gain a better understanding of Parker’s plans for the facility. Contrary to residents’ claims that the center was operating as a furtive drug treatment center, Thurman and Thiel assured Butters that, “currently, [the center] is not a drug treatment facility, but it’s more of a homeless center where people can come and go freely.” While the meeting offered a more defined outline of Parker’s intentions, Butters hopes to establish a more open line of communication between city officials and local residents moving forward. 

“I think that [the administration] needs to have a detailed plan and have those procedures out so that there's no misunderstanding between the people who are operating the facility, the people who live around it, and the people who are living in the facility,” Butters says. “[We] basically don't know what it is that the facility is doing besides the fact that it's acting as an in–and–out homeless center, so I think just being aware of a full plan would be helpful because then you could plan a response instead of being reactive all the time.”

Echoing Butters’ sentiments, Councilmember Jeffery Young Jr. has remained an outspoken advocate against Parker’s proposed expansion of the homeless shelter. Young alleges that city officials failed to notify him of the district development plan, bolstering criticism of the administration’s lack of communication and transparency with Fairmount community leaders. Since learning of the expansion, Young has sought to halt all operations on the center through a bill that would prevent the Department of Public Property from renewing its lease on the state–owned property, which is set to expire in 2026. 

“I can tell you all that none of my questions have been answered,” Young said in a public statement. “No one in this room does not want folks to get treatment … However, you cannot plan for a community without a community.”

Despite the onslaught of public opposition, Parker’s administration has fought to rectify the narrative surrounding the homeless center. Renaming the site Philly Home, city representatives have continued to insist that the facility is not operating as an addiction treatment center for Kensington residents. 

Instead, administrative representatives have designated the site as a low–barrier shelter, meaning that requirements for entry are limited in order to expand access to safe intake services. Contrary to speculation that the proposed expansion is related to Parker’s plans to clear out Kensington encampments, city officials have remained adamant that the site will continue to focus on supporting unhoused individuals from across the city. 

According to a spokesperson for the Managing Director’s Office, Philly Home should be considered a “wellness center” rather than a drug triage center. Led by individual providers operating as social workers, the center is strictly providing unhoused individuals with long–term shelter, meals, and supportive counseling. To convert the center into an addiction treatment facility, city officials would need to obtain a state–issued license and prolonged community engagement.

Despite its frustration with residents’ mischaracterization of Philly Home, Parker’s administration has attempted to assuage public safety concerns by hiring a 24/7 security company to remain stationed around the site’s perimeter, as well as improving direct communication with district leaders. 

Fairmount residents’ opposition to the expansion of the homeless center loosely mirrors a national trend in growing bipartisan NIMBYism—a “not in my backyard” ideology. A comprehensive report published by the American Political Science Review found that while the majority of Americans support the need for greater treatment facilities, they are reluctant to have these centers relocated into their own communities.

While residents‘ concerns often stem from a fear for their own public safety, NIMBYism can be particularly harmful in the context of expanding homeless shelters. Often, the ideology undermines projects intended to support the unhoused population, causing costly delays or detrimental cancellations. Left without access to basic shelter, sanitation, and emergency services, unhoused individuals are further entrenched in the poverty cycle. 

By reinforcing erroneous stigmas against unhoused individuals, NIMBYism has continued to hinder collective efforts to implement long–term solutions to address rising rates of homelessness across the nation. 

Fairmount residents’ opposition to Philly Home forces us to reconsider the role implicit biases continue to play in perpetuating America’s cycle of poverty and growing economic inequities. As the poverty crisis continues to afflict vulnerable communities across the nation, it is clear that devising a comprehensive solution to homelessness will require a collective commitment to empathy and compassion. By ensuring that each individual has equitable access to safe, supportive housing, residential neighborhoods in Fairmount and beyond have the opportunity to subvert social stigmas and galvanize national change.