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Editor’s note: This is the final story in a three-part series on the heroin and opiate epidemic that has wreaked havoc on an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood since long before the problem became a popular bipartisan campaign issue. Part one looked at the blurry line between addicts and dealers, and part two at the relationship between a brisk drug trade and lack of formal economic opportunities.
PHILADELPHIA — The elevated subway train rumbles over Kensington Avenue past Philadelphia’s largest and most robust open-air drug market. It’s on these littered streets, frequented by prostitutes and pimps, that countless addicts looking for drugs get stuck, the local expression for getting sucked into the area’s underworld.
But it’s also where some get clean.
“This is the belly of the beast,” said John, 30, an amateur MMA fighter and intravenous heroin addict from South Jersey, sitting in the Last Stop recovery house, near the corner of Kensington Avenue and York Street. Like many people interviewed for this series, he did not want his full name used because of the stigma of his situation.
“You walk left, go two blocks, you can get anything you want. It’s right in front of our faces,” he said.
The Last Stop is a no-frills recovery house run on a shoestring budget that takes a tough-love approach to beating addiction. Residents sleep in bare-bones wooden bunks — if they’re not spread out on the benches or floor — and eat most meals at the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen across the street.
Nothing is pretty here, but no one is turned away.
“You tell me your name is Toenail. ‘Hey, Toenail, come in. Let me get you a cup of coffee.’ I don’t care if you’ve got no ID, if you’ve got warrants, if somebody is looking to kill you because you burned them because of drugs," said Chris Marshall, who went to the Last Stop in 2012 to get clean. He now runs the place with the help of other volunteers, like Frank Aiken, an older addict and sponsor, who grew up in the neighborhood and spends most of the day in the kitchen. “Our primary purpose is helping people get sober,” said Marshall.
“We do what we think works and only what works,” he added. “What we lack financially, we make up spiritually.”
Much of that spiritual atmosphere comes from Edward “Eddie Z” Zampitella, the gruff, big-hearted owner of the building, who is a recovering alcoholic and addict with more than two decades clean.
According to public records, Zampitella, now 59, bought the Kensington building in October 2001 for $16,000. Shortly after that, he used the building to host Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings throughout the day.
He has since bought several more buildings on the same block, allowing 40-some residents at a time to sleep in the dorm or — after they accumulate a certain period of sobriety — shared apartments.
Residents who find work are asked to pay $100 per week; those who receive food stamps are encouraged to contribute supplies to the coffee bar.
The Last Stop doesn’t receive any city, state or federal dollars.
“We don’t get any grants. We don’t bill insurance. We don’t have any contracts with any agencies,” said Marshall. “We don’t force people to go to outpatient recovery to get kickbacks like other places do.”
In addition to the voluntary rent from working residents, the Last Stop relies on donations collected during the NA and AA meetings (which, during Al Jazeera’s visits, amounted to just a few dollars per meeting), donations from neighbors and past residents and Zampitella’s personal savings.
Many of those who walk through the Last Stop’s doors feel they have nowhere else in the world to go. “They’ve burned out their insurance going to so many detoxes and rehabs. Shelters have kicked them out. They’ve burned out all their bridges, and they’re actually sleeping under bridges,” Marshall said. “That’s when we come in.”
Ricardo, 36, showed up on a cold Friday in mid-January, a day after being released from jail. “Nobody want to help me out, not even the recovery house,” he said. “They ask you for money, all this stuff. I don’t have no money. I just came out of jail. They ask if you have insurance. I just got out of jail — no welfare, nothing.”
Marshall said he often hears of recovery programs denying addicts entry because they don’t have space. “That’s not fair to tell someone they can’t get clean because there’s not a bed. If we have to, we’ll make room for you on the floor of the clubhouse. If we have to, I’ll make room on the floor in my house,” he said.
‘You can’t be bitch-made being in here. We’re fighting for our lives in here.’
John has been hanging around the Last Stop since he moved in two weeks earlier, after an epic bout of drug use. “I was doing so many drugs, I can’t believe I’m actually alive,” he said. “I just went off the deep end. I just wanted to kill myself. I had $300 left, and I was ready to swan dive off the third floor [of the hotel where he was staying] when that ran out.”
Instead, his sponsor dropped him off at the Last Stop.
He said the Last Stop is nothing like his recovery experience over the summer at a more upscale inpatient rehab in Mays Landing, New Jersey. “I came in and talked to somebody in here, and they said, ‘I don’t care if you live or die. If you want to go get high, go get high. This is boot camp. You’re going or get your life together here. Cold-turkey withdrawal. You’re going to put the drugs down and get sick and go through it.’”
He called it a “hell of an eye opener.” He had never eaten at a soup kitchen with the homeless before. There were no nurses to cry to, no juice in the fridge, no warm bed to tuck himself into when he felt like it.
“I just sat in the chairs and shivered for five days straight. I couldn’t talk, throwing up in the bathroom, couldn’t do nothing. By the sixth or seventh day, I started feeling better, coming out of my shell and made some friends.”
“You can’t be bitch-made being in here,” he added. “We’re fighting for our lives in here.”
Melissa R., 43, had nearly 70 days clean when she spoke with Al Jazeera at the Last Stop. She lives in the Last Stop’s sister house in Camden, which opened in 2008, but attends meetings at the Kensington location.
“My job [as a veterinary surgical nurse] was going to pay for me to go to fancy rehab, but they don’t work. I found rehabs don’t talk about the Big Book,” she said, referring to the book by Alcoholics Anonymous’ founders that lays out the organization’s 12-step program.
“I feel God placed me here for a humbling experience,” said Joey DiGiovani, 35, who has been living at the Last Stop for a few weeks. “If you’re coming in looking just to get out of the cold, Eddie’s going to tell you this ain’t no flophouse. But if you’re serious about recovery, they’re going to open their arms to you.”
Drug use at the Last Stop isn’t tolerated, although testing is done only if a resident is suspected of using.
“You’re in a building with 40 of the most hard-core drug addicts you’ve ever seen in your life. You might be able to fool us one time, but second time, we’ll pick up on it,” Marshall said. “When we suspect, we’ll ask them first — ‘Tell me the truth, and we’ll work with you.’ But if we have to waste $12 on a drug test and you come up hot, you’re going to have to go.”
Alcoholics and addicts say that every recovery house and Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous group has its own personality. At the Last Stop, there’s a heavy spiritual bent, and while the NA and AA programs are nondenominational, Zampanelli is a devout Catholic.
“They do real recovery here — real spiritually-based recovery,” said Chris Willis, 29, who has been living at the Last Stop since June, when he reached the end of his rope, homeless and strung out on crack and dope in Camden. “In [other] places, they don’t focus on the spiritual aspect of it, which is what the Big Book tells us our problem is. Those places they tell you to stay away from people, places and things. But I always got back out and get high. Right now, I’m here in an open-air drug market and sober.”
Despite their temptation-filled surroundings, residents and regulars say that for those serious about recovery, the support at the Last Stop is unmatched.
“They’ve got good recovery here, man,” said DiGiovani.
“We stick together. We’re real tight,” said John. “We’re here to rebuild our lives, and this is the best opportunity to do so, because we can stay here as long as we want.”
“They didn’t ask for a penny when I walked through that door,” he added.
For Marshall, it’s promising to see politicians across the country finally address the heroin epidemic, with which Kensington has grappled for decades. He supports more funding to treat drug addiction — but with skepticism.
“If they want to dump more money into [drug treatment], that would be great, because that would open up more beds for detoxes, more resources for outpatient and inpatient therapy. But honestly, I don’t see the need for so many resources. We’ve been doing it without government money for as long as the Last Stop’s been around, and we have a damn good success rate,” he said.
And he has little expectation that any new funding will serve the most destitute addicts he works with day in and day out.
“It’s great press, but like everything else, it’s a phase, and it’s going to fade away,” he said, “and people like me and Eddie Z and Frank are going to keep grinding on here in Kensington after this is a passing fad.”