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This Philadelphia facility is one of the nation's lowest-barrier shelters for drug users. Some say it offers tough lessons for a city in crisis

Max Marin, Aubrey Whelan, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Lifestyles

PHILADELPHIA -- It was a few days after Christmas last year when Tarence got news that changed his fortunes. After three years of battling opioid addiction, sleeping in train stations or under the El tracks in the Kensington neighborhood, a bed was ready for him at Beacon House.

“It put the smile back on my face,” he said, grabbing a meatball sandwich in the shelter kitchen one afternoon in May.

Located on Temple Episcopal medical campus in Kensington, Beacon House is the city’s only shelter designed for people in active addiction, which boosters describe as one of the lowest-barrier shelters in the nation. City officials consider all contracted shelters “low barrier” and none explicitly require sobriety. But some shelters impose curfews and security screenings, while only allowing residents to stay for certain hours of the night.

In the three years since it opened, Beacon has become a coveted placement for people like Tarence — in large part, because none of those restrictions apply.

The shelter has helped more than half its residents begin taking medications to treat addiction and connected dozens with housing, even as some of its high-risk population can still fall through the cracks and disappear, from the shelter into the streets.

But as with other efforts to expand housing to one of the most high-risk populations in the city, neighbors who live near the shelter have complained about its proximity to their homes, citing open drug use and discarded needles. It’s a rift that highlights the broader challenges facing Mayor Cherelle L. Parker’s administration as it seeks to expand treatment options as part of her plan to stabilize Kensington.

Beacon residents and staff say the shelter gives people who live there time to focus on their next steps while providing them with support to navigate housing placements, drug treatment, and other social services. The stability — and lack of judgment — leads many to choose to enter treatment, even though it’s not required.

Prevention Point Philadelphia, the Kensington-based addiction services nonprofit contracted to run the shelter, said 56% of Beacon residents are enrolled in some form of outpatient treatment for substance-use disorder. And three years in, more than 30% of Beacon residents were placed in subsidized housing, while another 10% moved to long-term care facilities or another safe haven, and another 8% returned to live with family or friends.

Experts say that low-barrier shelters like Beacon remain rare at the national level.

“If we were actually crafting policy around what research and evidence shows is successful, it would be this type of model,” said Melissa Moore of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit that advocates against punitive responses to addiction.

“For a lot of people, stabilizing their housing situation is associated with decreases in drug use and use of emergency psychiatric services,” she said, adding that she found the proportion of Beacon House residents who eventually entered into more stable housing “remarkable.”

But with a high-risk population, Beacon also faces steep challenges. Among its 294 residents, five have died since the shelter opened in 2021. A dozen returned to the streets. Another 14 went to jail. And 86 people over the last three years — 29% of all residents — left and their whereabouts are unknown, Prevention Point said. (Moore said it’s not unexpected for housing programs to lose touch with some residents. “It’s really difficult to be able to remain in contact with programs that are providing support when you’re experiencing such instability,” she said.)

Since drug use is prohibited in the shelter, it can spill out into the street. In May, a resident sent a letter to city officials on behalf of a nearby church, a school, and 10 other neighbors to complain about people injecting drugs in front of nearby homes. Used needles proliferate on the street, the letter said.

Residents asked officials to relocate Beacon’s main entrance onto Temple’s campus to reduce foot traffic. Prevention Point said that wasn’t possible under the existing lease arrangement, and for Americans with Disability Act accessibility reasons. But staff conduct regular cleanups outside and deploy outreach workers to the area, in addition to having security guards around the clock.

Kensington residents have long pushed back against rehabs and shelters, arguing they simply help cement the drug crisis in the neighborhood. But some leaders said the alternative is continuing with the status quo — where people live and use on the streets, without an olive branch to recovery.

“[Beacon] gets people in a safer environment, working with a case manager, and having some kind of stability in their lives,” said Maria Gonzalez, the executive director at HACE, a Fairhill community development nonprofit that built the shelter. “Is there room for improvement? Always. But they’ve been a good neighbor, and this can be a model for some kind of stability as opposed to having encampments all over the neighborhood.”

Inside the Beacon system

After a relapse into opioid use in 2020, Tarence soon found himself living on the streets of Kensington during the pandemic, wracked by shame and worried about the family he left behind in the Allentown area.

“To pull yourself back up out of an empty swimming pool is tough,” the 47-year-old said.

The simple amenities offered at Beacon have been his ladder. During a May visit, the shelter’s director Dale Tippett bounded between the dormitory-style floors, where rows of beds line the naturally lit corridors. Residents receive a cubby area and a locker, which many decorate with flowers, religious texts, family photos, and Eagles merch.

After arrival, residents are expected to meet with their case manager weekly to work on personal goals. Tarence focuses on employment with maintenance jobs and cleaning up blighted lots with the city’s Community Life Improvement Program. Others focus on their housing, mental health, or drug treatment goals.

Only 20 out of 294 residents have left the Beacon program to pursue inpatient treatment. Most opt instead for outpatient alternatives like Prevention Point’s Sublocade program, a monthly buprenorphine injection that reduces opioid cravings and withdrawal.

 

“After a few months, people are actually starting to realize that stability is accessible and possible,” Tippett said. “They’re figuring out where they want to go and what they want to do.”

Megan Reed, a research assistant professor at Jefferson who has studied the city’s addiction treatment systems, said things like a structured schedule and a locker for belongings could add up to “a sea change in someone’s life” and effectively lift “a huge psychological burden.”

Despite Beacon’s laxer rules, Tippett said drug use on site is a common infraction. But discharges are a last resort. Some staff members argued expulsion from Beacon should be more routine, but Tippett relies on a graded disciplinary system rather than sending people back to the streets.

The stakes are already high for many coming in. Beacon prioritizes beds for the most at-risk population, and the increasing toxicity of the street drug has caused complex medical problems, and in some cases deaths.

“People’s bodies are just not keeping up with the drugs now,” Tippett said.

A tough lesson in a NIMBY city

The ban against on-site drug use means that spillover into the surrounding neighborhood is inevitable. While the area around Temple’s campus near Huntingdon Station on Kensington Avenue is less dense than other parts of the neighborhood, a few dozen homes, a church, and a preschool sit within a block of the site.

“Since the shelter opened, we have experienced increased abject drug use, drug selling, defecation, urination, garbage, rat infestations, exposed used needles, verbal and physical assault, noise, and homeless encampments,” said the resident letter to city officials, whose author asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation and because they were speaking on behalf of over a dozen neighbors.

Neighbors said that two shootings recent shootings near the Episcopal campus have elevated fears, even though no Beacon residents were involved in either incident.

Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, whose district covers parts of Kensington, defended shelters like Beacon as key to alleviating the city’s drug crisis. But she said Prevention Point and other providers must “take responsibility for the unintended consequences of their work” and do more outreach to neighbors who must endure the unintended effects.

That balancing act has not been well-received outside Kensington.

The recent expansion of a Fairmount shelter to accept people with substance-use disorders has drawn enormous rebuke, with residents flooding city officials with complaints about open-air drug use and concerns about safety in the upscale neighborhood.

While not modeled after Beacon, the recently expanded Fairmount shelter has yielded larger opposition. Parker’s plan to build a $100 million addiction services facility in Northeast Philadelphia, part of a larger “wellness ecosystem” that would help get people living in addiction off the streets and into treatment, could take three years to complete. In the meantime, the city is asking its existing shelter providers to add beds at a time when police are preparing to ramp up narcotics enforcement in Kensington and concerns about displacement are rising.

With few alternatives in hand — Philadelphia’s bid to open a supervised injection site is mired in an ongoing legal battle — some city officials have begun pushing back on the “not in my backyard” mindset that stymies many drug treatment centers and homeless shelters. David Holloman, interim director of the Office of Homeless Services, pleaded with City Council in March to help combat the bad reputation around such facilities and “[educate] the public on things they just don’t know.”

“We have to challenge Philadelphia, all Philadelphians who don’t live in Kensington, to be part of that solution,” Councilmember Nina Ahmed responded. “To be understanding how they can contribute.”

Without more beds, Crystal Yates-Gale, the deputy managing director who oversees health and human services, said even people who complete treatment programs could end up returning to the streets. “You can end up back in the same situation back on Kensington Avenue — or name the avenue — and then you’re homeless again,” she said, “with all of the challenges of being homeless.”

Beacon is nine beds above its 60-bed capacity and there are no immediate plans to grow.

Six months into his stay, Tarence is still waiting on his placement into long-term subsidized housing. The promise of that stability keeps him motivated to focus on his treatment and stay employed.

“I’m not gonna give up,” he said. “You gotta put one foot in front of the other, and once you do that, things actually happen.”

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Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this article.


©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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