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The New Flophouses: Part One

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By Ryan W. Briggs

It is nighttime under the El in Kensington.

Street lamps cast a sickly orange light, creating a labyrinth of shadows between the steel support columns that line Kensington Avenue.  The darkness brings out the desolation of this part of the neighborhood, with a few prostitutes and drug dealers trolling for customers amidst vacant lots and crumbling buildings.

In the hostile territory of hardscrabble Kensington, thousands of drug addicted men and women--- some clawing towards recovery, others deep into dependency -- conduct a nightly search for a place to lay their heads.

On this night, Robert Lee Nuñez, a 55-year old Puerto Rican who says he has been living under a bridge in East Camden, is one of them.

"You here about housing?" Rob wants to know. "Okay, so I'm trying to get affordable housing, uh, I'm trying to turn my life around and I'm looking for somebody to help me"

We're standing in the half light, near the door to "The Last Stop", a self-described 'clubhouse' on the 2400 block of Kensington Ave. that hosts nightly Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Robert Lee Nunez.jpgI tell Rob, who swears he's off heroin for good, that I'm not providing housing, I am writing about housing.

Like many of the people at the clubhouse that night, Rob wasn't there just for the meeting; he was looking for a place to stay.

Nearby, three dilapidated rowhomes, owned by The Last Stop's proprietor, shelter select "members" in damp basements filled with plywood bunk beds and pillows. The buildings were storefronts at one point, but now their security grates are perpetually closed, their facades a hodgepodge of amateur stuccowork and exposed brick.

They are illegal boarding houses, but they are only a fraction of the many that have proliferated in the neighborhood. For now, Kensington is the epicenter of the city's flophouses, the illegal boarding homes that can be found up and down Kensington Avenue and surrounding streets; unregulated -- maybe ignored is a better word -- by the city and the police. 

It's dawning on Rob that the affordable housing he was seeking is a mirage.

"Yeah, I just figured Philadelphia's so big there'd be more, you know, affordable housing'" he says.

He uses the words "affordable housing" as if they have a magic about them, something that will take you from the tarp under the bridge and put you in a big, suburban-looking house with no strings attached, and no rent, and no questions asked.  For good.

Maybe for some, but not for Rob and for the thousands of other itinerant addicts who float through Kensington. The wait-list for PHA (Philadelphia Housing Authority) housing is 40,000 people long, and they generally favor families and the elderly, not single men or women, and certainly not addicts.

Besides, most of these addicts are not native Kensers. They come from outside the neighborhood and many from outside the city.

Still, Rob persists in hoping for the best. "I mean, uh, well, can you tell me something good, or something?"

The boarding houses of Kensington take forms as varied and diverse as the collection of people that inhabit them.  Outside of simply sleeping on the street, which is not uncommon, penniless addicts generally have three options for housing. They resemble a pyramid.

At the top, are state-sanctioned recovery homes; next are unlicensed independently-operated "dry houses" - like the Last Stop. At the bottom are "wet houses," essentially illegal, anything-goes flophouses.

Slots in legally-run recovery homes are difficult to come by.  Dependent on scarce government funding and strictly regulated, they are difficult to start up.  The city's Office of Addiction Services oversees much of the transitional housing Philadelphia, pumping millions of dollars into 20 recovery housing providers city-wide, but the money buys a pittance.

Fresh Start, one of the largest providers in the city with 13 separate locations, can only house about 280 recovering addicts at any given time with an annual operating budget of $2.3 million.  They receive special funding from the OAS, as well as the Veterans Administration, for the bulk of their budget. Most of their residential space is filled with clients referred by either organization.

Fresh Start, and similar programs, is often the best a recovering addict can hope for. Residents are frequently drug tested, and monitored 24 hours a day.  To leave, residents must sign out at a security desk and explain where they're going and for how long, with deviations or suspicious activity prompting inquisitions by counselors, the majority of whom are "graduates" from Fresh Start's recovery program.

Their facilities are clean and well maintained, surprisingly so, given that any given location can have up to 20 or more adults living in a three-story rowhouse.  A typical unit consists of a first floor with a common room and a large kitchen, with upper levels consisting of small rooms with two to three bunk beds. There are a number of Fresh Start homes in the neighborhood.

Dan Slavin, Fresh Start's communications director, is enthusiastic about their program, which boasts an 80% graduation rate.

"A lot of our guys are referred to us straight from city jails.  They don't want to go back."

Unfortunately, Dan says, given the number of clients he's seen repeating the program, the actual recovery rate is much lower.

"If we could get to 25% that would a miracle," says Slavin.

Your average street addict is lucky to even get into the program.  You have to be clean before you enter, so you must first get admitted to an offsite detox program or go clean on your own, an ordeal in itself. Because many of their spots get filled with clients from OAS or the VA, spots are scarce for "walk-ins".  Even then, much like other operators in the neighborhood, you have to have some kind of disability income or other government stipend to get in.

With many applicants wait-listed, there is demand for more legal boarding houses, but getting started is a difficult task, even for established service providers.

Frank Vega, also a recovering addict, runs Inner City Ministries, an organization that conducts religious outreach programs to addicts in the Kensington area. He operates out of a clean, white stucco building across the street from The Last Stop, its side adorned with a mural of Jesus, crackling blue lightning around his eyes, looming over a crowd of tiny city dwellers.

Vega says he has been attempting to get the proper paperwork in order to operate a legal housing program "for years".  Running his non-profit ministry, he has struggled to find the time or money to meet the demands of city's Department of Licenses and Inspection, as well as the state licensing protocols. The barriers are high; the funding is limited.

Vega's building already has accommodations for dozens of men, but remains shuttered until he can come up with the money to meet the City's fire codes.

Some would-be housing providers don't have the patience for that. They don't worry about licenses, codes or state certification.

Across the street, bright light beams out of the door of The Last Stop.  A crowd of men, and a few women, are gathered outside the low-slung brick building, babbling, pulling on cigarettes.  Meal time, following the Narcotics Anonymous meeting, has just ended.  Some are waiting to be let into the locked rowhouses to go to their bunks.

But, The Last Stop is no charity.  Without state funding, money to keep unlicensed dry houses running has to come from somewhere.  And that means junkies pay - with scrounged money, disability checks, food stamps, sexual favors - or in the case of the Last Stop - the sweat off their back.

It is one of dozens of informal recovery houses that populate Kensington, run by would-be saviors to drunks and dope-fiends. Short on dollars or know-how, they run homemade recovery programs, and work to keep addicts from slipping back onto the streets or into drug-infested "wet houses."

After talking to Rob and others, I wanted to learn more about life at The Last Stop and more about the bottom feeders: the wet houses.

 

 

In Part Two, Living life below the radar, the dry and wet houses of Kensington.

 

 

Cover Photo: Kait Privitera

Nunez Photo: Erika Lee Vonie

 

 

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