Blog NKCDC An update from Kensington
Kensington neighbors gather at the Somerset Neighbors for Better Living block party on September 4

It has been a while since we published an update. We wanted to catch you up on events this month in Kensington.

Governor Wolf visits

On September 16, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf visited Kensington. He took a 20-minute driving tour of the neighborhood and held a press conference at Esperanza Health Center.

The visit came as a surprise to NKCDC and most of the community organizations invited. While NKCDC was grateful to hear the governor speak, we believe his trip would be more productive if he sat down with neighborhood residents and community groups to understand the impact opioids are having on Kensington.

In the press conference, some of the presenters and some community members in the audience spoke about unsafe conditions in the neighborhood. After a resident answered Governor Wolf’s question about what she would do, Impact Services president Casey O’Donnell gave the governor a letter signed by nine local civics and community organizations, which had been sent to Mayor Kenney after an August 11 City Council hearing.

Letter from nine community organizations

The letter Casey O’Donnel handed the governor was signed by East Kensington Neighborhood Association, Harrowgate Civic Association, Impact Services, Juniata Park Civic Association, Kensington Neighborhood Association, NKCDC, Operation Save Our Streets, Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network, and Somerset Neighbors for Better Living.

“The following list, while not exhaustive, is a summary of immediately actionable requests arising from the August 11th unified protest and council hearing focused on living conditions for all in Kensington,” the letter states.

The list includes multiple, specific requests in six major areas:

  1. Provide housing for all.
  2. Provide treatment for all.
  3. Parks and Rec centers are immediately designated and enforced as safe spaces for children and families.
  4. Eliminate Kensington as destination for narcotics use and support the reunification processes for those from outside of the area.
  5. Sanitation of public spaces (sidewalks and parks) in Kensington is given priority.
  6. Establish a concise reporting mechanism (i.e. dashboard) to demonstrate progress on implementation of actions listed above.

“While we will continue to organize and grow our coalition of diverse stakeholders to include additional voices and identify solutions that will work for all impacted, we wanted bring light to the following issues we expect your administration to immediately address in collaboration with this emerging coalition,” the letter states.

Two weeks later, the letter had still not received a reply from Mayor Kenney.

Philadelphia Citizen elevates neighborhood leaders

On September 17, the Philadelphia Citizen published a long piece by Malcolm Burnley that outlined the City’s checkered history with the opioid epidemic in Kensington, and suggested that the solution may lie with residents and community groups already working in the neighborhood. NKCDC Executive Director Dr. Bill McKinney and Casey O’Donnell of Impact Services were among those quoted extensively.

“Almost 100 percent of the services up here became geared toward those suffering from addiction,” Dr. McKinney said. “There’s no longer anything for the residents, to the point that residents’ own trauma—all the things that they’re suffering from as a result of this—is being ignored.” 

Community leader is threatened

On Wednesday, September 22, a Kensington block captain and community activist, Sonja Bingham, had her home lit on fire. Neighborhood and city leaders believe she was deliberately targeted because she speaks up for her neighborhood. Councilmember Mark Squilla and Councilmember María Quiñones-Sánchez held a press conference on her block that Friday, and Ms. Bingham spoke as well.

“At the core of what I do is community first, right?” Ms. Bingham said. “We want a safe and clean neighborhood. We deserve that much. We’ve suffered you know.” 

“I look at the approach and the way the policies and the laws are inequitably rolled out. I watched how, when I was attacked, all of a sudden I was supported—and it was wonderful right? The city jumped up: they’re gonna help pay for this, to pay for that.” 

“So we get the reactive support, not the proactive, right? Take the ten thousand dollars and get us some better lighting, right? Take the ten thousand dollars and get us some cameras. They don’t do that here. They don’t value—we don’t see the kind of investments that tell us that we matter,” she said.

You can find full video of her comments here.

Mayor Jim Kenney released a statement saying, “We stand with the Kensington and Harrowgate communities and with the leaders who are working to improve their communities despite the circumstances. We deeply care about what is happening there, and an array of City departments are working on the ground to address the specific challenges that this community faces. This callous attack will not be tolerated, and we will do everything in our power to ensure justice is served.”

We need support

As this year’s violence and protests may show, unsafe conditions for residents in Kensington have become intolerable. 

“I’m not sure that words matter anymore,” Casey O’Donnell told the Philadelphia Citizen “But if I was able to sit in front of the mayor, I would tell him to come to Kensington and be present with all of this—and then tell me that you’re unwilling to take action.”

Shannon Farrell-Pakstis of Harrowgate Civic Association Association wrote on Facebook, “I’m asking everyone to speak up and speak out.”