As the opioid epidemic forces Philly neighborhoods to deal with overloads of people with addiction, welcoming them with open arms is not the norm. But thanks to a forward-thinking community leader, one section of Germantown is doing just that.
On the 700 block of East Chelten Avenue, Reverend Michelle Simmons is known. She’s been the block captain there for a decade, and she owns the role. Simmons’ neighbors, who’ve affectionately dubbed her “Rev,” value her presence.
As it happens, Simmons also operates a certified recovery house. Into the house, which she named Why Not Prosper, she invites women with addiction who’ve recently gotten out of prison and want to maintain their sobriety in a supportive environment.
It’s fair to say that Simmons has broken down a barrier.
Even the most-respected recovery houses often face zoning obstacles — and even death threats — when they try to open up shop. For Simmons to operate a recovery home and simultaneously receive support from her neighborhood…it’s uncharacteristic.
How did Simmons skirt the not-in-my-backyard attitude that often blocks recovery houses in Philly? Care, personal connections and lots of giving back.
Give a little, get a little
To earn acceptance in Germantown, Simmons had to put in work. Before she opened up her recovery house on Chelten Avenue in 2006, she became a member of the local registered community organization (RCO). She made presentation after presentation to her neighbors about the benefits of sober living.
Simmons promised to help the neighborhood — she said she’d provide services and host community events.
“That’s how you get support,” Simmons said. “You just don’t come set up shop, you do some work beforehand. You tell them what you have to offer.”
And Simmons kept her promise.
On a table outside the house, she offers free food and clothing to any neighbor nearly every day. The house has operated as a polling place in a few local elections. When the water pipes burst last winter, flooding neighbors’ homes, she opened her doors to host a community meeting.
This Friday, she plans to shut down the entire 700 block of Chelten Avenue to provide free healthcare services to the community. Organizations she’s recruited will collaborate to offer HIV testing, information on mental health and breast cancer, plus legal services and even gun locks.
La Tonya Myers, a healthcare advocate and community organizer, will be working the event on Friday. She meets one-on-one with people to help them understand and maximize their healthcare benefits.
“I’m here to walk them through it, to make phone calls if needed, to help them articulate exactly what their problems are in getting services,” Myers said.
After the event, Myers will continue to help Germantown residents access appropriate healthcare. Every Monday, she’ll host walk-in hours for the community at Why Not Prosper.
“It’ll make a big difference,” said Germantown resident Louise Robinson. “There are people that don’t have healthcare at all in the neighborhood. People might not even know they have diabetes or high blood pressure.”
She added: “This gives them the opportunity to get tested for free.”
‘A great neighbor’
Robinson lives on the 700 block of Woodlawn Street — just around the corner from Simmons’ recovery house. She’s been there about 40 years, and she’s served as block captain the last two.
She’s grateful for Simmons’ presence in the neighborhood.
“When everyone else kind of shuts their door,” Robinson said, “her door is always open.”
“She’s a great neighbor,” said Diane Williams, who owns a daycare about a block away. “She’s always cooperative, very helpful and very informative. She has a great knowledge of the community.”
Meanwhile, the Why Not Prosper house has helped change Robinson’s perception of people who are recovering from addiction. She’s impressed that the house hasn’t caused any problems in the neighborhood — no loud noises, no extra trash. In fact, Robinson said Simmons leads her residents in weekly neighborhood cleanups.
From her point of view, Simmons has helped alleviate the neighborhood’s drug problem.
“Everybody has somebody in their family afflicted with drugs or alcohol,” Robinson said. “She is helping those young ladies.”
Williams said she’s hired a handful of Simmons’ residents to work in her daycare.
“I give them a chance if they’re willing to work,” Williams said. “And most of them are, after they come from down there.”
“I think she’s a light in the neighborhood,” Robinson added. “Those girls see that light down there, and it shines.”