Updated Oct. 15
As Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic continues to proliferate, a longtime Kensington-area resource for people struggling with addiction has been taken out of service.
On Oct. 1, officials from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections shut down the Last Stop recovery center over code violations. Last Stop proprietor Eddie Zampitella said he was first confronted by inspectors over these violations about two weeks ago.
“It’s a little headache, but we’re still going to do what we do,” he told Billy Penn.
Zampitella has been running the recovery center for the past 17 years. The space is home to 12-step meetings and regular food and clothing giveaways. It sometimes offers a bed to people who are experiencing homelessness and addiction and need a place to sleep.
The Last Stop originally operated out of a building on Kensington Avenue near Front Street. But as the area developed, Zampitella said, the locus of people on the street who needed help shifted north. So earlier this year, he picked up and moved his operation there.
It turns out the property at 1810 E. Somerset St. wasn’t quite ready for him.
Violations could lead to court
When inspectors came out to Last Stop recently, they docked the property for two zoning violations, according to Kae Anderson, director of economic development at New Kensington Community Development Corporation.
There was one violation for housing people, and one for hosting more than 50 people at a time, Anderson said. Neither of those is allowed at the address as it’s currently zoned: CMX-2, neighborhood commercial mixed use.
Zampitella is adamant that he wants to make everything right — “I’m doing whatever it takes money-wise, because I believe in what we do,” he said — but he may not have the time.
Making the Last Stop compliant would require getting a zoning variance, a long process that entails filling out an application, getting approval from the City Planning Commission and the blessing of a local community organization (RCO) and pleading the case in front of the full Zoning Board of Adjustment.
A lawsuit may come first. “L&I intends to work with the Law Department to take the property owner to court,” said Karen Guss, department spokesperson.
Asked about the Last Stop’s closure, District 7 Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez emphasized the importance of maintaining property that is up to code.
“Businesses need to be good neighbors and comply with our regulations,” Quiñones-Sánchez said, “but most importantly they must provide the vulnerable communities they serve with a place of safety and cleanliness that respects their human dignity.”
NKCDC leadership agrees with the importance of code compliance for safety, Anderson said, but believes the business is providing a service to the community.
“If the Last Stop does get their operation up to code, I think it would be a better contribution to the neighborhood than the way that it’s currently seen,” she said. “It’s what the neighborhood needs right now.”
A staple for the community
Before the Last Stop was shut down at the start of the month, it hosted 12-step meetings twice a day, at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. To Zampitella, each one felt like life or death.
He recalled a young woman arriving in tears just before the scheduled start time of a recent meeting.
“She remembered the Last Stop was here at Somerset and Kensington,” Zampitella said. “She had nowhere else to go. If the door was shut, she would’ve went out and used.”
While Zampitella tries to resolve his zoning issues, he’s begun hosting meetings and welcoming people into another new building he acquired recently, at the intersection of Kensington and Lehigh avenues.
However, it doesn’t necessarily fill the void caused by the East Somerset location being shuttered, he said. Without the Last Stop’s regular meetings and services there, Zampitella worries more people will relapse and end up on the street.
Dave Tomlinson is a Philly drug and alcohol counselor, and he’s the president of Goods & Services, a harm reduction outreach organization that provides free breakfast to folks in Kensington out of the Last Stop’s building.
The temporary shut-down, Tomlinson said, removes essential addiction services in the neighborhood.
“The Last Stop’s approach is something completely different, and there aren’t many places that offer that right there in the neighborhood,” he said. “And we need that.”
During Tomlinson’s free Sunday breakfasts, he estimates he serves about 200 people every week at the Last Stop. Without the building, he wonders how they’ll provide the same outreach.
“That’s where a lot of people go just to get something to eat,” he said. “That’s a staple for the people that live there.”