It was last summer when a man with addiction ran into the Mural Arts Kensington Storefront, badly beaten up and bleeding. He didn’t ask for treatment or medical care. Instead, he asked textile artist Lisa Kelley to put him to work.

Kelley, who teaches a class at the Storefront, obliged. She had the man sweep the floors, take out the trash, sort through the recycling and anything else he could find to do.

“He was making things up as he went along,” she recalled, “because he really didn’t want to go back out there and use that day.”

When Mural Arts first opened the space on Kensington Avenue near Somerset in March 2017, the idea was for it to provide free art classes plus light food and beverages for people in the neighborhood.

After a year in operation, the Storefront has found itself playing a more important role: providing a community for people in need.

At the end of that summer day, Kelley had said goodbye to the odd jobs man, not knowing if she’d ever see him again. But he returned a week later, again expressing desperation to the Mural Arts staff: he didn’t want to use anymore. This time, Kelley was able to provide enough encouragement that he entered treatment that day.

Encounters like this have become common, Kelley said, and she and other artists have learned best practices for helping people with addiction.

Messages of support wait to be woven into a display Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

‘The essence of someone’

It still all starts with the art.

The Storefront offers varied weekly programming, including the textile classes Kelley runs with artist Kathryn Pannepacker, journaling workshops, support groups and open mic nights. There are also ongoing installation projects, like “Epidemic,” a weaving made up of strips of paper, on which people have written down how addiction impacted them.

Making art and teaching art helps people connect, Pannepacker said. “You see the essence of someone, and you want the best for them. You want to help them align with that somehow.”

Over the last year, she said, she’s learned to better engage people from the neighborhood to encourage them to stay in the space. She and Kelley have incorporated writing and jewelry-making into their textiles class for those who find difficulty weaving.

Being creative is not a requirement to take sanctuary in the space. Sometimes, like with the man who came in during summer 2017, people just want a job to do. Some people come in just to grab some food, or to fall asleep in one of the Storefront’s folding chairs. That’s OK too.

“We don’t care what you’re doing,” Pannepacker said. “Just know this is a place you can be.”

Families are welcome at the Storefront Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

A place for positive activities

The Storefront also partners with Prevention Point Philadelphia, Impact Services and the New Kensington CDC to provide entry points into treatment services.

Casey, a Kensington resident, has been a regular attendee at the art space since it first opened. Back then, she was using drugs — but she has since entered her recovery and started using methadone.

Without the Storefront, Casey said, she’s not sure she would have found this path.

“In your recovery, especially when you’re first getting clean, you need to have positive activities in your life,” she said. “This place gives you plenty of different things to do and to learn.

“I know that the people really love me here,” she added. “That’s the thing that really counts, coming here and knowing that these people really care and want to be here to help you.”

Casey enjoys making jewelry at the Storefront Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Building on success

Laure Biron, the director of Mural Arts’ Porch Light program, still imagines improvements for the space.

She’d like to oversee the creation of a grief counseling group, bring in peer recovery advocates and have Prevention Point park its wound-care van on site one day a week.

Other changes include updating the current programming to be more practical. For example, the textile classes could teach people to weave scarves that they then sell to business owners in the area.

Pannepacker, the textile artist, agreed. “If there’s a program we can create that’s like an entrepreneurial program, or a mentorship program,” she said, “where they make something and it can be sold, it’s a way of supporting folks.”

An installation at the Storefront Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

For Casey, who faces the challenges of brand-new recovery from addiction, the best thing would be to have more Mural Arts Storefronts pop up around the city.

“If there were more of these places, there wouldn’t be so many drugs and people going on drugs,” she said. “Instead of selling drugs, I hope people would want to come here and do something constructive with their minds.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...