Robert Fifer has no doubt what would have happened if he'd stayed on the street this winter.
"I would have froze to death," he said matter-of-factly last week. He is 64, with silver hair and a slight frame, and has been addicted to heroin for years. He spent the last three on the streets, fearing shelter life even more. But when the recent weeks of frigid temperatures hit, he got a bed at a shelter in a converted thrift store on Kensington Avenue. Rather than stay out in a wind so sharp it made people cry in pain, Fifer went inside.
He knows how fortunate he is. In an opioid-ravaged Philadelphia neighborhood where hundreds sleep outside under bridges and in doorways, he has one of the only 40 shelter beds for people like him.
This is a place that reserves judgment. Residents — most of whom are in opioid addiction — don't have to be in recovery or detox, a standard many would find impossible while living rough. Run by the needle-exchange program Prevention Point, the shelter has taken in 160 people and ushered five dozen of them into treatment in the year it's been open.
It's a rare beacon in a city with a large and burgeoning homeless crisis that has proved particularly difficult for people in opioid addiction. Advocates say the persistent heroin encampments just blocks away, where plywood shelters, dome tents, and sagging couches sprawl, point to the need for more like it.
A similar 40-bed shelter is set to open in the spring, long after the most dangerous months have passed — a delay that has angered residents who see misery all around them, advocates for those in addiction, and the people who live in the camps.
For now, the old thrift store is it, repainted a cheery green, filled with rows of dormitory beds and a handful of military cots. Personal belongings in trash bags and battered suitcases spill out onto the floor. Some residents have decorated their nightstands with pictures and plastic flowers. On Monday night, Fifer and a friend watched TV in amiable silence while others lined up for showers, did laundry, and ate pasta and peas in the modest kitchen. A woman gingerly poked at a growing abscess on her thigh, dangerously infected from a botched injection.
Staffers stored residents' syringes — no one is allowed to use drugs inside — at the intake desk, where Marvin Barksdale, sober for four years, checks each resident in. The beds are always full.
Searching for more permanent housing
Despite the perils they face, the people who sleep here and on the streets say the pull of their addiction and the agony of withdrawal make city shelters outside of Kensington daunting. Others feel tethered to the makeshift communities they've formed — under the train bridges, in the abandoned houses — in the absence of better options in the neighborhood.
Those not ready for recovery balk at the curfews of more rule-bound shelters far from the neighborhood. Prevention Point, the city's only needle exchange, meets people where they are and aims to build trust, hoping to get them into treatment.
"This is my first step to recovery," said Mekkah McIlhenny, 24, who has been using heroin on and off for five years. Last week, the staff at the shelter gave her the first birthday cake she'd received in years, a mark of the respect she's come to appreciate. "Just because we use drugs," she said, "doesn't mean we don't deserve a place to live."
Meanwhile, city officials say they want to replicate the Prevention Point shelter's model.
Liz Hersh, director of the city's Office of Homeless Services, said the city wants to add 80 more beds in Kensington, and expand the permanent housing program run by Pathways to Housing, another service that doesn't require sobriety. Half of that program's residents are in treatment or abstaining from drugs now.
The city opened a temporary respite center at a community center in Kensington during the cold snap last year. But it's been difficult, Hersh said, to find a place in the area for a more permanent shelter.
Permanent residents of Kensington say they know more housing is needed. But they also know their community has long borne the brunt of addiction epidemics that draw people from all over, as well as unregulated recovery houses that have been accused of mistreating residents and accepting kickbacks.
"The biggest fear people have about the neighborhood is that by putting a shelter here, we're condoning behavior that we consider to be negative, and that we're sanctioning the drug trade and the crime that comes with it," said Laura Tepper, a member of an Old Kensington neighbors' association. She supports a respite center in the neighborhood, and has launched an online petition in favor of it that's garnered more than 2,500 signatures.
"We can move people to a place where they get some stability and are offered rehab, job training, and permanent housing," she said.
‘Give us a chance’
At the shelter, Fifer settled in for the night with the day's newspaper. McIlhenny snacked on a bagel, and 38 other lucky souls made their way to a warm, dry sleep. Under a bridge, blocks away, the unlucky zipped tent flaps shut and burrowed into borrowed bedding.
John Vessels, a thin man in his 20s with a red beard and tattoos snaking up his neck, stood in the dim light under the Lehigh Avenue train bridge. He was 10 blocks from his childhood home but hadn't spoken to his family in months. He said he has been telling doctors at detox programs that he wanted to kill himself — just to get inside, anywhere. It hadn't worked so far. He still spends nights awake under the bridge, listening for danger.
"Give us a cot," he said. "Give us a room. Give us a chance."