Jennie C. on her bunk in the women’s dorm at the First Stop

At 32 years old, Jennie C. had been abusing drugs for more than a decade before she stepped into the First Stop recovery house in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood early last winter.

“The first time I actually injected [heroin], I was 17,” said Jennie, who did not want to use her last name. “I had just graduated high school, and it was done from that point forward. Life just became different. I didn’t know it was going to end up the way it did. It was every day going forward.”

Living in the Poconos at the time, Jennie would travel to Kensington to buy drugs and then return home. Eventually, however, her parents kicked her out, and Jennie found herself in and out of jail, shifting from one person’s couch to another and sometimes sleeping on the street, and turning to sex work to pay for drugs.

“I’ve had some bad experiences on the streets,” Jennie said. “I’ve been taken advantage of. I’ve been robbed. I’ve been jumped. I’ve been raped. It’s not ok, but maybe it’s something I haven’t fully embraced or really, really thought about. But it kind of comes with the territory.”

Finally tired of ripping and running, Jennie landed at the First Stop last winter on a friend’s recommendation.

There she stopped shooting heroin and smoking crack cold turkey, and had a rough week of withdrawal. That’s the First Stop way.

Jennie C. Credit: Jeffrey Stockbridge

The tough love approach

At a time when medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is expanding across the country and being touted as the gold standard for getting people off of opioids, the First Stop still promotes abstinence as the only way to go, despite vast evidence that MAT works.

Abstinence-only, 12-step programs are popular with — and work “extremely well” for — people with alcohol-use disorder, said Prevention Point Philadelphia’s Medical Director Dr. David Barclay. But the success rate for an abstinence-only approach for those with opioid-use disorder is “virtually nil,” said Barclay, who runs the Suboxone clinic at Prevention Point in Kensington, a needle exchange that offers medical treatment and many other services to users.

The First Stop is not licensed to dispense Suboxone, methadone, or Vivitrol. Nor does its proprietor, Tony Gardner, a chiropractor from Bucks County, want to offer MAT since he sees it as “trading one addiction for another” —  a view generally held by his residents but not by many other people in recovery, clinicians and other centers of treatment.

For a while, Jennie complied with the recovery house’s time-honored 12-step fellowship program and became part of a community trying to lift itself up without any government money or medical interventions.

“I did it cold turkey,” said Leanne Sharkey, 39, who was the First Stop’s house mom last winter. “It means something more to you when you can walk through that struggle because really, it’s not a pleasant experience. That’s why everybody here is so harsh about cold turkey withdrawal, laying on the floor, because at the end of the day it will mean something to you. The easier, softer way is not always a good idea.”

Since the initial reporting of this story, both Jennie and Sharkey have left the First Stop  —  and not on good terms, according to administrator Bonnie Ibisi and director Frank Aikens, 56, a Kensington native and fixture, 30 years in recovery himself.

Despite repeated attempts, this reporter could reach neither Jennie nor Sharkey and feared the worst.

Leanne Sharkey in the women’s dorm at the First Stop Credit: Jeffrey Stockbridge

A self-sustaining refuge

Taking these types of setbacks in stride, those still working on their recovery at the First Stop — and on the facility itself  —  grind on.

Gardner bought the four buildings and back lots that comprise the First Stop’s dormitories and clubhouse about a year and a half ago. Ever since, the First Stop has been breaking away from the Last Stop, another recovery house, which was originally located nearby but recently moved to Kensington and Somerset.

Gardner and Ibisi, who scrambles each month to piece together enough money from residents’ rents and alumni donations to cover the bills, have dreams of transforming the First Stop into a community that sustains itself without outside aid and sends more people into recovery than its peers.

Their dreams seem like fantasies when touring the First Stop’s unfinished bunk rooms and chilly clubhouse with its cement floor and exposed piping. But they are dreams of self-improvement that are cohering this community of approximately 40 residents and the countless alumni who circle in and out each day for meetings or to help with renovations and repairs.

“We’ve got a ton of skilled labor,” Gardner said. “We’ve got master plumbers, master electricians, master carpenters, masons, all that kind of stuff. So once we get them cleaned up and back functioning in society, then eventually what I’d like to do is start our own construction company.”

For the first 30 days, residents don’t pay rent, and they focus exclusively on getting sober under the watchful eye of Aikens. Then he encourages them go out and get jobs.

Director Frank Aikens at the First Stop Credit: Jeffrey Stockbridge

Branching into something new

Some people have lived at the First Stop for years. But that’s not the goal. Aikens encourages alumni to take residents under their wings and teach them new skills.

Gardner acquired the adjacent grocery store and is renovating it, including installing a pizza oven. A chef released from jail and living in recovery at the First Stop has been helping other residents learn how to make the dough for pizzas.

“The program downstairs is working very well for us, giving residents self-confidence that they can do something,” Ibisi said.

“It’s not just to come and they get detoxed and go back on the street again,” Aikens said. “But come in here, get clean and sober, go get a job, and become productive member of society. Get their own places, their own families.”

It’s a tough love, no frills system that doesn’t suit everyone but has been working for some people, such as Johnny Pipewrench, who lived sober at the First Stop for nearly two years, earning a paycheck as a plumber, before moving to Delaware for a higher paying job three months ago.

Aikens Credit: Jeffrey Stockbridge

Back from the brink

Originally from Deptford, New Jersey, Pipewrench, 32, started messing with drugs in his early teens. But it wasn’t until he was hospitalized for a staph infection he contracted during a mixed martial arts fight that he became addicted to Percocet and eventually turned to heroin because it was cheaper.

“Everybody I hung out with, they all shot through needles and everything,” Pipewrench said. “I would always look at it like those guys are drug addicts, not so much me…. The first time I tried [injecting] was the last time I sniffed anything because all the other drugs can go through the needle too.”

Soon Pipewrench was homeless and involved in gang violence in Camden. Eventually despairing, and with enough money in his pocket to post himself in a motel with a hefty stash of drugs for several days, Pipewrench made a desperate plan.

“I didn’t really see a way out at the time,” said Pipewrench, who had already tried a few rehabs. “I said when this money runs out, I’m just going to jump off of this thing and hang it up.”

Luckily, an acquaintance in recovery found Pipewrench and convinced him to come to the First Stop.

Johnny Pipewrench at the First Stop Credit: Jeffrey Stockbridge

“I got to the point where I was just like I can always kill myself later. What do I have to lose?” Pipewrench said. And so he was introduced to Aikens’ no-nonsense approach to getting clean.

“This wasn’t like anything I’d ever really been through,” Pipewrench said. “[I]t really hit me hard because I always felt entitled or something. They told me I was a selfish person. They said you can either go hit the door whenever you want or you can buckle down and get through this.

“There were a lot of times where I thought I should leave,” he admitted. But he stuck with the program, got sober, and learned that “there ain’t nothing more productive or more positive for yourself than to help others.”

Piperwrench is still on the sober path. “I want to keep doing better,” he recently said. “It’s not over. I got a lot more to do. I want to have a family. I want to be a father. I want to help as many people as I can.”