By Ryan W. Briggs
We're standing near the fenced-off grass lot in Kensington that adjoins the clubhouse, used for barbecues and lectures by The Last Stop's mercurial owner "Eddie Z", short for Edward Zampitella.
A Kensington native who never learned to read or write, Eddie is a 20-year recovering addict who styles himself as champion of men struggling free from the grip of addiction. His brand of recovery uses tough talk and violent imagery to remind addicts what they stand to lose with their habit.
The side yard features a handmade plywood coffin, spray-painted black, with a mannequin inside. A crude, grim idol, the mannequin represents the fate of everyone at the clubhouse, if they start using again.
The Last Stop is a dry house, albeit one that operates without licensing or regulation, and sits in the middle of the pyramid that are the many boarding houses -- dry, wet, illegal and legal -- that fill the landscape of Kensington, so many that it currently is the flophouse capital of Philadelphia.
A man named Rick (not his real name) was coming back to the Last Stop for a return visit.
"I've been coming here for five years...last time I was here for 9 months."
Rick is a 50-year old white male from Bucks County. He dates the beginning of his drug troubles to his cocaine use at the age of 19.
"You know I lost it all to the drugs. My salary, my family, everything...I used to get high from selling...but then it was just the drugs."
The details of his life story shift with his moods as he describes his exploits as a used car salesman, before he lost that job. But he is unwavering about the Last Stop: "This place saved my life," Rick says. "I could be anywhere right now...I got offers from 12 different marketing companies, but I want to be here. I need to be here"
As an experienced "member," Rick explains, the Last Stop takes in attendees from the meetings who ask for a place to stay - but only under certain conditions. To get a slot in the basement bunk beds, they have to agree to stay sober and attend meetings. And they have to know how to swing a hammer.
"There's a lot of guys who are mechanically inclined," he says. "You know addicts, we're good with that. We're very good at whatever we do, it's just a matter of staying off the stuff."
Rick says part of the recovery program includes working with a "construction company" run by "guys from [The Last Stop]." He vaguely alludes to doing work on "rental properties" throughout the city, but the only specific properties he mentions are ones owned by Eddie.
"You don't work and they'll kick you out, but there's no rent...well, except the fee of course."
The "fee" in Rick's case was half of whatever money he had. Workers with some form of welfare income were expected to "donate" that in lieu of rental payments.
Rick insisted he paid very little, though others familiar with the program have put the number as high $100 a week for members, who through good behavior and extra "fees" can move up from the basement to single rooms.
None of the properties are zoned for residential use, and certainly do not have the boarding house licenses or the building improvements they would need to operate legally. To Rick, the legality of the situation is secondary to a sober, structured environment, not to mention being off the street.
"I'm sleeping' on a piece of plywood in the basement thinking: 'What am I doing here?' Then I remember: I need this; I need to be here."
Eddie Z uses the difficulty in finding legal housing in his own defense, "The welfare people don't want them, even the cops don't want them," he explains. "So they come to me, and I take them in."
Eddie Z's unusual recovery program is hardly the only such operation in the area.
Another attendee of the Last Stop's NA meetings, "Patrick", a young, white, Gloucester City, N.J. resident, said he had recently moved into a house on the 1800 block of Westmoreland St, about a dozen blocks north of the Last Stop.
Patrick said there were about "6 or 7 guys living there". The property on Westmoreland St does does not have a boarding house license.
As unorthodox as some the Last Stop's "tough love" practices and work programs may be, they pale in comparison to conditions at the "wet houses" in the neighborhood.
Spiritual descendants of old-school flop houses, wet house owners don't particularly care if their occupants are using drugs or not, as long as they pay something.
I was told there were dozens of such rowhomes throughout the neighborhood, often rented from an absentee landlord, to make detection more difficult, and covertly renovated to house upwards of 20 people. Wet houses operators typically collect disability checks or food stamps as a form of payment and offer an unsupervised and often squalid environment.
Rob, an addict from
" When you move in there, that's your mailing address....so they can hold your checks. If you're not on SSI or whatever, they make you sign up and they let you stay for free, because they know you going get a big check for everything from when you first applied to when you got accepted. That's like your security deposit."
For women who are using, or even just coming off a relapse, such houses are often their only choice. The people I spoke with only knew of one "dry" house that would take women off the street. Many have to stay in homeless shelters, or hope they get accepted to special state-run recovery programs for women. It they have children, options are even more limited. Often they pay with a different currency than their male counterparts.
"Most places, they don't want to deal with women or their kids," said Ashley (not her real name), a woman of about 30 who was attending one of the Last Stop's NA meetings. "They don't usually make you have sex, but they make you do the other thing," she said, pointing to her lips.
It's a common arrangement, at the handful of "women's houses" I heard about. One women I spoke to had built a lean-to out of pallets and a tarp in a vacant lot on
During my time in Kensington, I wondered about the harm done to the larger neighborhood from having so many boarding houses, even the legal ones.
Dan Slavin, from Fresh Start, believes having well run, licensed recovery programs in the neighborhood helps to serve a community coping with drug addiction. Eddie Z and other addicts-turned-saviors running dry houses would likely agree..
But, I had to wonder if these houses -- legal and not -- acted more like magnets, drawing even more addicts to the neighborhood. Many of the people I spoke to weren't originally from Philadelphia, much less Kensington.
Neighbors, who did not want to be quoted for fear of retribution from boarding house operators, complained that the houses were a constant source of problems. Many said they had complained to the Department of Licenses and Inspections, which enforces the city code for boarding houses, which are supposed to comply with stricter fire and safety codes because they house so many unrelated people.
The response has been anemic at best. L&I housing inspector Clayton Salter, who said he was the "only housing inspector in [L&I's] Central District," which covers a large chunk of the area, said he "couldn't think of too many boarding houses, maybe one," that he had encountered.
And then there is the money. Providing housing for addicts can be a lucrative business. Fresh Start administrators make triple digit salaries. Eddie Z collects anywhere up to a $100 a person per week, and sometimes has 50 men at his houses. I was told "wet house" proprietors can easily make a $100,000 a year off each property, depending on how many people they can cram into a house.
Still, the rising fortunes of Fishtown and Northern Liberties are changing the dynamic in Kensington. As housing prices in the vicinity rise, the temptation is to sell and move on, even for the flophouse owners..
"With all this development pushing north, it puts a lot of pressure on us," Vega says. "You've got these brand new houses around the corner...it's become more profitable to sell off houses [in Fishtown], and sometimes that puts people back on the street."
Many said that the flophouse trade was creeping farther north, into Harrowgate and Frankford, both neighborhoods with stagnant or declining property values.
A police contact, who declined to be named, said that the 26th district, which encompasses many of the locations mentioned in this story "had [seen] less problems related to boarding houses," but the 24th district, immediately north, was becoming "saturated" with them.
The next night, at the Last Stop, Rob from Camden is long gone, no one knows where. Maybe he didn't like the basements. Rick is still there, talking about his job offers to anyone who'll listen.
But in his torrent of conversation, he starts to get wistful, recounting a time before the clubhouse, when Eddie Z, "had guys sleeping' at his own house, just to keep his sanity, you know? Seeing them helped him stay sober. He's a real charismatic guy."
From what I saw, Eddie Z genuinely cared about the men in his program. He knew the face of addiction firsthand, and seeing it repeated on the faces of the men in his care kept him straight.
And so it goes in Kensington. A lot of people got into the business to help themselves as much as others. Some found personal solace in helping others get a second chance. Others, most pointedly the wet house operators, simply got fat off the money addicts could scrounge together for a warm bunk.
As Kensington slowly digs out from under decades of deterioration and neglect, the neighborhoods to the north will get their chance to walk the line between charity and profit.