SEPTA is testing a new way to help people with addiction

If you take the Market-Frankford line from SEPTA to Somerset station and exit onto Kensington Avenue, you might run into someone like Kenneth Harris.

He is an outreach specialist for Merakey, a social service agency that recently partnered with the authority to help people struggling with homelessness and substance abuse who take refuge in the transit system.

“I hate that someone is stuck in this rut,” Harris said. “Active addiction is a horrible situation and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

The new structures at Somerset station aim to prevent people from loitering on exits and to give cyclists a clear path. (Emma Lee / WHY)

Somerset Station sits at the heart of the city’s opioid crisis, and it’s a place Harris seems to be familiar with. It was there that he was dealing drugs and battling drug addiction. He has since given up that life to recover and strives to help others do the same.

“If they don’t already know me and don’t know my story, I freely give them my story,” Harris said. “And they see me here to make a difference and do something different. Once upon a time, I stood here and sold art. I stayed here and I was the problem.

Now Harris could be part of a solution, thanks to a new initiative from SEPTA called SCOPE, which stands for Safety, Cleanup, Property, Partnership and Engagement. Ken Divers, deputy director of transportation for SEPTA, oversees the program and says the emphasis is on helping people rather than monitoring them.

Deputy Director of Transportation Ken Divers leads the Vulnerable Population Working Group at SEPTA. He says a combination of increased safety and awareness helps get homeless people and drug addicts off the streets. (Emma Lee / WHY)

“It’s a plan that can solve the problem… It’s a lasting plan that has a lasting effect,” Divers said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a wave of people seeking respite from the SEPTA system over the past year. Some stations in particular, including Somerset, have become gathering places for what the authority calls the “vulnerable population”.

SEPTA workers Allegheny electric car wash on Kensington Avenue. (Kimberly Paynter / WHY)

Code of conduct violations, which include blocking passageways, lying on seats or on the ground, and sitting on steps, nearly doubled in just three months, from 1989 in November 2020 to 3,291 in January 2021, SEPTA reported.

In January, loitering increased by more than 40% compared to the same month last year. And there have been 2,357 welfare checks, which include police interactions with people who are not aware or alert. This is more than four times the number in January 2020.

Workers who provide Merakey’s social services, the PAD (Assisted Police Diversion) program and Homeless Outreach meet every Tuesday outside their offices on Allegheny Avenue in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter / WHY)

The seriousness of the problem was underscored in March when SEPTA temporarily closed Somerset station for repairs and upgrades after elevators were damaged by urine and needles.

This was the opportunity for SEPTA to test SCOPE.

About Rhonda Lee

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