Homeless 'lost in the sauce' of North Broad rebirth

This pastel building, once the city's largest homeless shelter, is now Stephen Starr's catering kitchen. One official said that closing the shelter, near Ridge and Broad, will encourage development in the area, but she and several others denied a plan to move the homeless out of Center City.
This pastel building, once the city's largest homeless shelter, is now Stephen Starr's catering kitchen. One official said that closing the shelter, near Ridge and Broad, will encourage development in the area, but she and several others denied a plan to move the homeless out of Center City. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 11, 2012

GEORGE Tzimas deals in pizza, but for years, he walked on eggshells.

His pizzeria, Alessandro's, was around the corner from what was the city's largest men's shelter, the Ridge Avenue Center, on Ridge near Broad Street.

Homeless men would do drugs on the sidewalk near his shop, beg for change and come in for food.

"I tried to keep people happy; we tried to do it as politically correct [as] possible," Tzimas said. "I was walking on eggshells every day. The men would come in, and customers would watch our reaction and how we would deal with them."

After years of rumors, the 24-hour Ridge Center, which had served up to 500 men a day, closed on June 28.

Now, Tzimas is walking on air.

"The fact that there are not people outside the window doing drugs as they did one year before, that's a dramatic improvement," he said.

The closing of the shelter has led not only to a fundamental shift in the way homeless men are served in and around Center City, but also to a visible shift in the quickly gentrifying neighborhood that the shelter left behind.

Want proof? The former shelter building is now home to offices and a catering kitchen for one of the city's most notable restaurateurs - Stephen Starr.

A city official said that one of the reasons the shelter closed was "concerns about the ability to do other development in the area," though all officials interviewed for this story denied it was a push to move the homeless out of Center City.

But men standing in line recently on the Ben Franklin Parkway for free bowls of white rice and hot dogs - who've never heard of Stephen Starr - disagree.

"They are regentrifying the neighborhood and unfortunately, a lot of us are getting lost in the sauce," said Andre Jourden, 57, who is homeless. "The city is still trying to slowly move people out of Center City and make it harder for people here."

Bob Franklin, another homeless man, agreed.

"They just want us out of Center City," Franklin said. "They think we're an eyesore."

Ridge had problems

The shelter was never Shangri-La.

On the day it opened in April 1987, the Department of Licenses and Inspections cited it for 13 violations and told the building's owner, U.S. Four Inc of Sewell, N.J., to clean up garbage and vermin. The city had leased the building and moved in more than 100 men despite the code violations and no certificate of occupancy.

Until it closed, the shelter also served as the main intake center for men seeking city services like health care and employment assistance.

"If you were a single male and had a homeless issue, there were resources in that building that could meet your needs, no matter what they were," said Julius Jackson III, Ridge's former director.

"Ridge was good," said Jourden, who stayed at the shelter for six months. "The people were good; the outreach and case managers asked what your plans were and how they could help."

But not everyone shares Jourden's appreciation.

"I tried Ridge but it was too nasty. There were bedbugs, it was too big, and there were too many people," Dennis Moses, 55, said as he hung out at LOVE Park. "The street was a better option."

Marcellous Rymer, 27, who is homeless and stayed at Ridge for eight months in 2010, said the shelter wasn't clean, "but it was our fault. No one would do chores, and grown men wouldn't clean themselves."

Sister Mary Scullion, of Project HOME, a homeless-advocate organization, acknowledged that Ridge was rarely anyone's first choice.

"Ridge Avenue wasn't ranked No. 1 in terms of the best place to be, but it served a purpose; it was a stepping-stone," she said. "Again, Ridge Avenue in and of itself was not the ideal situation, but you know it could be looking better and better each day we don't have it."

The wrong model

Even when it opened, advocates for the homeless said that such a mass shelter didn't fit a trend in homeless services toward smaller facilities and permanent housing.

Dainette Mintz, director of the city's Office of Supportive Housing (OSH), said any shelter that houses a lot of residents can be problematic.

"When you have more than 200 people in one building, it's hard to manage and to have sufficient staff to maintain order and standards," she said.

In 2009, the city received a three-year $22 million federal and state grant to rapidly rehouse people. That included providing people with first months' rents and security deposits and guaranteeing rental subsidies for a year.

With that money, OSH was able to house more than 1,350 people and prevent another 1,500 from becoming homeless, Mintz said. About 100 men who used to live at Ridge were permanently housed through that program. Of the 1,350 rehoused, only 8.5 percent have returned to a shelter, Mintz said.

The decision to close Ridge was made in summer 2010 because of changes in the housing model, the rapid rehousing grant and "concerns about the ability to do other development in the area," Mintz said.

"I don't think that it takes much to assume that our not still being at that location does help with the revitalization effort," she said.

The shelter sat smack dab in the middle of the North Broad Street corridor, an area experiencing an surging rebirth.

Apartments continue to be renovated and high-end restaurants like Stephen Starr's Route 6 and Marc Vetri's Osteria and Alla Spina have settled in.

Tzimas said the area is starting to feel like Center City now.

"I open the door and yell and now I feel like the people in City Hall can hear me," he said.

Officials said the decision to close Ridge was not done in an attempt to get the homeless out of Center City, but others see it differently.

For Saleem Abdallah, who sells produce and hoagies at his Sal's Produce on Broad Street, the push is evident. He said he's lost about 10 percent of his business since Ridge closed.

"One-hundred percent, the city's trying to move the homeless out of here," he said. "You can tell they're doing that and replacing them with a richer group."

When Ridge's closure was announced, the city said the facility would be replaced with two new smaller shelters that would house about 75 men each.

That has yet to happen.

"We encountered lots of opposition as we embarked on our mission to identify alternative sites," Mintz said.

OSH changed an existing shelter, the Station House on Broad Street near Huntingdon, from a facility for women to one for men on July 1, providing 100 beds.

Community opposition halted what OSH considered a promising spot in West Philly that it had completed design work for.

"That was disappointing after investing so much time," Mintz said. "It's hard to provide sites for any homeless people, especially homeless single men because there are no guarantees you can provide [to opponents]."

Mintz said more than 170 beds in the city's 2,800-bed shelter system have been vacant every month since July.

The city's latest homeless count, conducted Aug. 8, showed a 2 percent decrease in the street homeless population, from 601 last summer to 588 this summer.

However, with Gov. Corbett's decision to cut off of general-assistance money to 30,000 Philadelphians in August and with the approaching winter, homeless advocates say the situation could quickly worsen.

"We will not be surprised if we see an increase in the number of people who need shelter," Scullion said. "It might not be today, but when it breaks, it will be tough."

Andrew Latimore, 57, who is homeless, said it's been hard for people who've been cut off from general assistance.

"A lot of people are off their checks now and only have food stamps," Latimore said. "You can't stay nowhere with food stamps."

Ridge's rebirth

Developer Eric Blumenfeld, who calls himself "a creative rea-estate hack," owns the Ridge building and is responsible for much of the development along North Broad. He took control last week of the blighted Divine Lorraine at Broad and Fairmount and plans to turn it into apartments and restaurants.

"We're trying to change the world down there," he said. "It's happening."

The Starr catering kitchen still looks like the shelter on the Ridge Avenue side, but its front door has been moved to Broad Street, where the wall has been painted in multicolored pastel stripes.

"It certainly is the most representative building of transformation that I've been involved with," Blumenfeld said.

In an email, Starr spokeswoman Louis Najarian said the building now serves as the main commissary and tasting rooms for Starr's catering clientele.

Blumenfeld said he's working on "hypnotizing" Starr into putting a restaurant into remaining space in the building.

Homeless advocates and the homeless don't seem bitter that the shelter is now home to Starr catering. They just hope the company gives back.

"Our hope is that they will be successful there and that it might provide some opportunity for entry-level jobs for homeless men," Mintz said.

Starr Restaurant Catering employs about 60 full-time staffers. No one who lived at Ridge has applied to the business for employment, Najarian said.

She said Starr does many things for the homeless, including donations to Lutheran Settlement House in Fishtown and to Project HOME. Starr also does an annual fundraiser for Philabundance.

Rymer, the former Ridge resident, said it was "kind of cool" Starr was in the building now.

"He should give away his leftover food though," Rymer said. "If you helped the people who used to live there, you get more respect for your restaurant."

In the end, Scullion said the expansion of North Broad Street and the closure of the Ridge Avenue shelter doesn't have to be a blow to the homeless.

"It's not like the villain is North Broad Street or the villain is the city; the villain is all of us," she said. "We're all part of this problem. We have to figure out how to provide a meaningful opportunity to succeed."

Contact Stephanie Farr at farrs@phillynews.com or 215-854-4225. Follow her on Twitter @FarFarrAway. Read her blog at PhillyConfidential.com.

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