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Voters in the city's poorest neighborhood say they're not feeling the love

The mayoral primary is just around the corner, but the election is not yet on the radar for those in a struggling neighborhood.

Edwin Vargas, 53, sells bottled water at 2nd Street and Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia.
He collects disability pay, but has to resort to selling water to afford his monthly rent, bills and food. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Edwin Vargas, 53, sells bottled water at 2nd Street and Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia. He collects disability pay, but has to resort to selling water to afford his monthly rent, bills and food. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read more

IN THE CITY'S poorest neighborhood, registered voters can tell you the cost of a gallon of milk, down to the penny.

They can tell you the exact profit margin gained from hawking bottled water, bought by the case, for $1 apiece on the street.

They can tell you precisely what they paid in property taxes last year. Or readily name the worst drug corners within their 19133 ZIP code.

But asked which mayoral candidate they prefer, most draw a blank, either unsure who's running or what, if any, difference their vote would make in a pocket of North Philly long in the strangle-grip of poverty. A place where, for decades, nothing much changes, no matter who is mayor.

"All the mayoral candidates - every one - all they do is talk. Words go with the air," said Shamill Fuentes, a registered Democrat who works at a hair salon on the corner of Lehigh Avenue and Palethorp Street in West Kensington.

The next mayor will inherit a city with a 27 percent poverty rate - the highest of the nation's 10 largest cities. At a mayoral forum tonight, the candidates are expected to talk about how they would reduce homelessness and hunger as Philadelphia's next leader.

"The next mayor has to be able to connect the dots of opportunity," said Sister Mary Scullion, president and executive director of Project HOME, which is part of a coalition that organized the "Vote for Homes" mayoral forum.

"There are people who are working full-time and living on the margins and still struggling," Scullion said yesterday. "The pressures that people are under simply trying to survive can take its toll and it only takes a matchstick to set off the kind of violence and disruption that we recently saw in Baltimore. . . . There are higher levels of frustration in our communities and we have to do something about it."

View larger: Candidates' plans for poverty

'We have been forgotten'

The 19133 ZIP code, the city's poorest, encompasses the neighborhoods of West Kensington and Fairhill and is often associated with labels: the Badlands, the Ghetto.

"My goal is to get me and my kids out of here," said Fuentes, 24, a single mom who struggles to pay her $600 monthly rent and relies on her grandparents to watch her two small kids while she works long hours at the salon. "I don't want to be in this environment, period."

To her, the promises and bluster of the mayoral candidates are as useless as the gusts of wind that sent tattered plastic grocery bags and waxy fast-food wrappers skittering across the sidewalks on a recent spring day.

"There are a lot of [politicians] who are full of broken promises," she said.

Fuentes questioned why she should give something of value - her vote - to candidates who don't seem to value her community and only come around during election season. She said she likely won't vote in this month's primary election.

"We have been forgotten," Fuentes said. "It's an abandoned situation. If you walk around, you'll see empty lots, trashy lots. You'll see buildings - abandoned, boarded, graffiti. The people here, if we feel that nobody cares, why should we care?"

For many residents, the neighborhood can feel like an archipelago, adrift from the city's glittery topaz skyline and awash in joblessness, crime, addiction and drugs. Lots of drugs.

On a recent spring day, Lamont Butler sat on the stoop of a shuttered business on Lehigh Avenue. With an ankle crossed over his left thigh, he diligently used a lollipop stick to dig chewing gum off of the bottom of his black Nike sneaker. He adjusted his eyeglasses and pointed his chin toward the men clustered on a corner across the street.

"This is a drug-infested neighborhood," Butler said. "That's what brings it all down - the drugs."

The next mayor, Butler said, should spend more public dollars on after-school programs, job training and child-care centers.

"They spent all that money on an ice-skating rink. That was a waste of money," said Butler, referring to the rink near City Hall at Dilworth Park, which is run by the Center City District.

Butler, a registered Democrat who works as a cook, said he was still undecided about his mayoral pick.

"Of course I'm going to vote, but I know one thing, it won't be for Lynne Abraham. She's too harsh," Butler said. "I will vote for somebody who is for the people. I'm not saying for their race. I'm talking about someone who is for you and for me."

Poor people are busy

It's not as though mayors haven't tried to lift up this neighborhood. In 2013, Mayor Nutter created the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, which has put forth a comprehensive plan to fight poverty. Mayor John Street started the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative to combat blight. But more is needed.

"Poverty touches every facet of a person's being - to their mental health to their diet, to their access to appropriate levels of education to employment opportunities," said Adan Mairena, pastor of the West Kensington Ministry, a church near Hancock Street and Susquehanna Avenue. "Poverty rears its ugly head every second of our day."

Mairena, 42, said "poor people are pretty busy" trying to survive. They're focused on how to get by today, not on an election two weeks from now.

Take Edwin Vargas, a registered Democrat, who said he hasn't thought much about the election, though he likes Nelson Diaz.

Vargas stood on his usual corner, Lehigh Avenue and North 2nd Street, hawking bottles of water from a blue cooler.

"Ice-cold water! Agua!," he called out to passing cars.

"I hope [Diaz] do something, because right now I'm sick, and I'm out on the street trying to sell water because I can't survive on what they give me. I'm suffering," Vargas said.

Vargas, 53, said he receives $700 a month in Social Security disability benefits, but it's not enough to cover his rent, utility bills and food. He said he used to work in a print shop but a chard of glass cut the tendons and nerves in his forearm, rendering it useless.

His story is a lot like others who live here. He grew up largely on the streets and got sucked into drugs. He dropped out of school and can't read or write. Although he hasn't done drugs in years, his body continues to suffer from the aftermath of addiction. His teeth are rotted; the gums tender. His liver is inflamed and painful, from an untreated case of hepatitis C. He needs surgery to remove a cyst. He'll work the corner for hours, or until his body aches too much, he said.

A young woman headed down Lehigh walked passed and then turned back. "Excuse me," she asked, "Are you getting on the bus?"

Vargas shook his head "no."

"Oh, OK, I was going to see if you wanted to buy bus tokens from me," she said.

Vargas laughed, "You see - everybody's trying to sell something, trying to make a couple dollars."

One block up Lehigh, near American Street, Jose Vega leaned against a splintered telephone pole with his arms folded across his chest. A pile of litter - a crushed Pepsi bottle, a purple plastic deodorant stick, cigarette butts, a plastic spoon - sat at his feet.

Vega kept an eye on the 2003 Ford Explorer parked curbside a few feet away. A handwritten "For Sale" sign in the rear window reads $2,700, but Vega said he'd take "best offer."

Vega, 57, a registered Democrat, seemed to know little about the mayoral race or the candidates. He, too, said he feels disenfranchised.

"The city doesn't help people with real need," Vega said, gesturing with his hands toward the Center City skyline. Vega said he's tired of the crime and violence; he's tired of dialing 9-1-1 to report the armed drug dealers who post up on the corners, only to get no response from the Police Department.

"You call and the police officers don't come," he said.

Vega then took out his wallet and thumbed through slim cards. He pulled out a Pennsylvania license-to-carry card. Vega said he applied for the carry permit in 2013, though he has yet to buy a gun. On the card, there is a box that asks, "Reason to Carry." Vega stated, "self-defense."

Markeese Anderson, 47, who lives on 8th Street near Cambria, said he desperately wants a job, but potential employers shut the door when they learn he has a drug-related criminal record.

Anderson said he scrapes together about $300 a week as a for-hire hauler, relying on word-of-mouth business and his 1996 Dodge pickup truck to help people move.

It is frustrating, he said, to see the drug trade thrive just a few steps from his home, while he struggles to find a job with a living wage.

"I'm going to vote for somebody who is going to help the community," Anderson said. "You have a lot of people out here who are really trying to do the right thing."