Recovery houses challenge Philly neighborhood's recovery

Jorge Santana , project volunteer for a state lawmaker, outside a recovery house: "It's hard to get businesses to open up here."
Jorge Santana , project volunteer for a state lawmaker, outside a recovery house: "It's hard to get businesses to open up here." (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 14, 2011

Below the Church Street stop, under the roar of the El, an appliance dealer pushes a washing machine to the sidewalk, readying for the start of business. Nearby, a woman waits at a bus stop. And in front of a blue door marked by graffiti, a handful of men in ragged clothes and with life-weary eyes puff away amid cigarette butts that litter the ground like confetti.

Jorge Santana, a former chief of staff for State Rep. Tony Payton who volunteers for the lawmaker on special projects, walks by from Payton's nearby Frankford office and shakes his head. "This is what we're dealing with," Santana says of the beat-up commercial corridor.

Along the 4300 block of Frankford Avenue, with its discount stores, fast-food joints, and vacancies, the building with the blue door is one of four recovery houses in a three-block stretch that also hosts an alcohol-treatment center.

"It's hard to get businesses to open up here," Santana says of the disinvestment along the avenue.

His aim is to help build community through economic empowerment. Part of the challenge lies in an entrenched market. In the last five years, Santana says, Frankford has become an epicenter for drug- and alcohol-recovery houses. On one block, a recovery house sits across from an Irish pub. On another, a recovery house sits paces from a well-trafficked drug corner.

Those who would know - city officials and recovering addicts - estimate that the Frankford section is home to dozens of such recovery houses. Some operate under hotel or boardinghouse licenses. But many are unregulated, leaving people like Santana wondering about the impact and pushing for regulation.

The city's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services has guidelines to support the 270 residents living in the 19 recovery houses it funds, at a 2011 budget of $4 million. Those houses must adopt standards that include proper zoning, round-the-clock staffing, relationships with licensed treatment providers, and clear house rules.

"But we're not a regulatory agency," says Commissioner Arthur Evans, recognizing the hundreds of houses citywide that operate outside his purview.

Payton's office has been working on state legislation that would require recovery houses to be licensed, similar to businesses. Santana says the goal is to weed out the bad houses and make way for economic and community development. In May, the National Association of Recovery Residences held its first conference in Atlanta, where officials from around the country, including Philadelphia, discussed the need for national standards for accredited recovery houses.

In Frankford, those living in recovery houses have usually been discharged from hospitals and treatment centers and, because of burned relationships with family, have no other place to go. Without stable housing, "practically nothing else works," says Evans. "Those in recovery need support that will support the gains that they've made in treatment."

Popping up throughout Frankford are rowhouses converted into recovery houses crammed with bunk beds housing 20 or so men or women. Many collect unemployment, disability, or public assistance, pay $100 a week, and often give up their food-stamp cards for a place to sleep and three meals a day. Meetings at treatment facilities are not required.

"It's not just that people don't progress in those types of environments," Evans says. "Those environments can actually be detrimental," to those in recovery and the community.

On Frankford Avenue, Santana eyes a man peering out of the second-floor window from a bunk bed. He goes to the rear of the house, where a a few men gather around the picnic table in the yard. A woman sits on a weight bench.

Santana turns the conversation to recovery houses in the neighborhood, both good and bad.

"There are a lot of recovery houses around here that are like crack houses," says Kevin Atkins, 44, a burly man who has managed the house for five years and says he has been clean for eight.

Sitting with him was Gene, 32, who grew up in Tacony and didn't want to give his last name. Sinewy, with an easy smile, and wearing a "Proud to Be an American" T-shirt, Gene said he has "been trying to get sober for a while." Among his vices: heroin. In the house about a week, he goes to regular intensive outpatient meetings.

"I learned so far that my way doesn't work," said Gene. "I need a spiritual guide to function daily."

Santana nods.

Santana would like to see numbers such as relapse rates for treatment centers in the city, and state-issued performance measures for funding. He believes that strong regulation through comprehensive programs would put those in recovery and the community back on their feet.

In the meantime, he keeps visiting recovery houses, looking for those that do good work and those that raise red flags.

Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601,, or @kiagregory on Twitter.

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