YouTube Is Monetizing Human Suffering at an Open Air Drug Market

Volunteers in Philadelphia’s Kensington say YouTubers and TikTokers are increasingly exploiting drug users as “trauma porn stars.”
YouTube Is Monetizing Human Suffering at an Open Air Drug Market
A screenshot of USALIVESTREAM's live feed of Kensington. Image: YouTube

The Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia is one of the most brutally obvious signs of America’s public health crisis. The so-called “open air drug market” in the middle of the country’s sixth most populous city is where hundreds of people use drugs, some of whom are unhoused, usually without being arrested by the police. It is a failure of our health care system, our cities, and our drug enforcement policies on public display.

For some, it’s also a content farm, where they turn other people’s misery into engagement and profit. 

As I am writing this, 675 people are watching a YouTube livestream from a channel called USALIVESTREAM of a camera that is panning back and forth over the corner of Kensington Avenue and East Allegheny, where there’s a SEPTA train station that people congregate around. As is normal on YouTube, to the right of the video is a chat where viewers can talk to each other, and pay to post stickers and “super chats,” highlighted messages that cost as much as $500. The revenue generated from this chat is split between YouTube and the YouTube channel owner. YouTube and the channel owner also make money via pre-roll ads viewers have to watch before the video starts. It is a live version of a growing trend, mostly on YouTube and TikTok, where people make videos of people in distress, specifically in Kensington. 

The dire situation at Kensington is such that the live feed is always capturing multiple people who are clearly in distress, slumped over while they’re standing, asleep in camping chairs, or using drugs. None appear to be aware they are being filmed and exploited as a form of entertainment.

They're lying and they're charging people to make a joke out of this fucking situation.

Some viewers in the chat say they are from Philadelphia, while others say they’re from other parts of the world and don’t even know where Kensington is. While they sometimes talk about the bigger societal issues that created the problems they see, they mostly make fun of the situation, and the real people on camera, commenting on it as if it were a reality show They give people who appear on the feed nicknames like “Shaq” and “Broomhilda,” and mock them. 

“I wouldn't elevate her with a name—thief is who she is and what she is. Things were going fine until she arrived. She arrived ramming something far up her nose must have bashed her tonsil,” one user said.

“What’s that guy wearing a mask for, he’s already dead 🤣,” said another.  

Sarah Laurel, executive director of Savage Sisters Recovery, a housing and harm reduction non profit that provides resources for people living with or affected by substance use disorder in Kensington, is well aware of the stream and a related growing trend of people who come to Kensington to make videos they post to YouTube and TikTok. Laurel, who lives in Kensington and is a recovering addict, told me that last year she and Savage Sisters convened its Harmful Ethics Reduction subcommittee to address the issue.

“These people aren't journalists, they're not professionals. They're just YouTubers running around taking videos of my friends,” Laurel told me on a call. “They've gotten countless videos of me and my staff reversing overdoses, and posted these videos of an individual clearly in distress. And then everybody just kind of makes fun of them…That Kensington 24-hour livestream, they make fun of my friends. I see them every day. They’re unhoused, are using substances, and they [the viewers] give them nicknames and make fun of what they’re doing. They make a mockery of our desperate situation. It's a public health crisis.”

Laurel told me that at some point she put up signs on that corner telling people to stop filming. “We are not your trauma porn stars,” the signs said. I also saw the livestream chat refer to similar signs.

One of the livestreams previously said in its description that the live feed was from a “hacked” police camera. Philadelphia Police denied this. 

“The video being live-streamed is not coming from our cameras,” Miguel Torres of Philadelphia Police Department’s Office of Media Relations told me in an email. “We are aware of the camera living [sic] streaming on the internet. There is no law against cameras facing into/live-streaming public spaces.”

USALIVESTREAM did not respond to a request for comment sent to the email address listed as a point of contact on the YouTube channel. YouTube did not provide comment in time for publication.

Laurel told me that back when she was unhoused, Kensington encampments were located under underpasses. In 2018, these encampments were cleared out, pushing people to where they are today. Back then, most drug users were using heroin and other opioids, and after the encampments were cleared, they were doing it in the open. 

In 2019, Laurel said, xylazine, also known as tranq, a non-opioid sedative used by veterinarians, entered the drug supply. As Laurel told me, and as explained by Drexel Medicine, Covid caused an uptick in substance abuse that hasn’t slowed down yet, and xylazine being mixed into other drugs, like fentanyl, makes drug use more dangerous. In April, the White House designated Xylazine as “an emerging threat to the United States.”

“Overdose deaths continue to climb and xylazine adds another layer to the epidemic. We’re seeing hospital beds filled with patients with necrosis (those with severe skin cell death) and amputations because wounds don’t heal, and patients’ physical systems shut down,” Barbara Schindler, vice dean emerita and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Drexel University College of Medicine, said in an interview published on Drexel Medicine. “It’s very scary stuff and people don’t know they’re using it because it’s mixed in with other drugs.” 

“It was just insane,” Laurel said about covid’s and xylazine’s impact on Kensington. “Ever since then, more and more people started coming down and taking videos, people started hearing about it. They called it ‘zombie land’ because our friends do look like they're comatose almost on this drug. The visual of it changed dramatically. And it was just out there more, and more people were hearing about this open air drug market.”

When I first started reporting on the Kensington livestream, it was hosted on a channel created in 2007 called @Usalivestreamtv, which had 41,500 followers and over 3 million views. The channel also had several video interviews and vlogs shot by someone who said they were an unhoused person. Most of these are two years old, and shot at encampments in Venice Beach. One video interview in the same style was shot in Kensington a month ago. 

The channel hosts archives of the livestream (and, strangely, archives of livestreams of planes taking off from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport), but is no longer hosting live feeds of Kensington. Instead, it links to a new channel, @Usalivestreambroadcasters, which was created in 2008, where the Kensington livestreams are now hosted. On Wednesday it began streaming what appears to be live footage from a drone flying above the same Kensington corner. That stream is titled “Kensington Ave Live - Turbo Bonus Stream,” and had more than 300 viewers when I last checked. 

Both channels also link to a website that hosts videos of Kensington. This site only hosted videos when I first saw it, but this week got a visual makeover, adding many more sections, images, a disclaimer, and several articles that seem to be generated for search engine optimization. An email associated with this site also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

USALIVESTREAMS is not unique. Go to YouTube, search for “Kensington Avenue,” and you’ll find hundreds of videos, many from the same corner, showing the same people in the same kind of pain, with millions of views. These videos go viral, and are then picked up by established media outlets.

Some people, including those in the USALIVESTREAMS chat, say that the videos raise awareness about the issue, and that they raise money for people who are struggling in Kensington. 

“One lady actually sent an email and said, we send all these resources to Kensington,” Laurel told me. “The fuck you do. I know for a fact you don't because I live here, because I've been here and I've never seen anybody come out and give those resources. They're lying and they're charging people to make a joke out of this fucking situation. They're profiting and using capitalistic modalities to make money off of our pain. And this is a unified pain, the residential and the unhoused, and it's disgusting and it should be illegal.”

I asked Laurel what kind of help she thinks Kensington actually needs. 

“We're pretty much ground zero for dealing with what this looks like, and how it's going to negatively impact public health and is going to overburden the hospitals and the urgent cares,” she said. “You really need to increase low barrier shelters [with minimal requirements for housing people] and we need running water. And that's been our call to action. This is a toxic drug supply. We need to get ahead of it. We need shelter and we need running water for our friends because access to showers and toilets for them is a game changer for the way that those wounds heal or don't heal.”