Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly eyes Mastbaum High School for temporary Kensington homeless shelter

The city is opening a drop-in site in the neighborhood to encourage more social distancing.

Jules E. Mastbaum High School on Frankford Avenue

Jules E. Mastbaum High School on Frankford Avenue

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Kensington’s Mastbaum High School is on the short list of buildings being considered to host a drop-in site for Philadelphians with nowhere to go during the coronavirus pandemic, city officials confirmed.

An official location has yet to be chosen, but wherever it ends up, the facility will welcome people who need access to free food or a place to shower and use the bathroom. It’ll also be equipped with shelter beds — ideally 60 to 75, said city spokesperson Mike Dunn.

“Its function is to make Kensington safer by providing indoor space where people can get a meal, wash up and rest,” Dunn told Billy Penn. “This will reduce density on the streets and support social distancing.”

The respite center is something city officials promised after acknowledging that the current method of encouraging social distancing in the neighborhood was lacking. Currently, the tactic is basically having police drive around and shout through megaphones that people should “maintain six feet of space” between one another.

Kensington is one of the hotspots for Philly’s homeless population, partly because it’s also a nexus for drug trade. The neighborhood’s so-called “open-air drug market” has surged during the pandemic, according to multiple reports, with crowds forming often on sidewalks and stories about relapses proliferating through the community.

“Those without homes are more vulnerable than ever,” said Brian Abernathy, Philly’s managing director, during a press briefing last week. “We’re looking to open a new low-barrier site in Kensington that could house 100 individuals.”

Officials wouldn’t say which other potential locations are being looked at to house the site.

Mastbaum is currently empty because schools across Pennsylvania are closed by mandate from Gov. Tom Wolf, who announced Thursday that remote learning would extend through the end of the academic year. In non-pandemic times, the six-story, 221,000-square-foot building at 3106 Frankford Ave. is where more than 700 students get their high school education.

Meanwhile, the city’s regular homeless shelters weren’t built to accommodate six feet of space between guests, meaning there’s a high risk for viral spread.

Plus there’s another void: Prevention Point, an essential service center in the neighborhood, had to close its popular drop-in center at the start of the pandemic.

“We would have folks sitting a foot away from each other in there,” said Prevention Point’s director of community engagement Clayton Ruley. “Obviously in this time, that can’t happen. So that’s eliminated.”

Last month, Philadelphia officials worked to identify a potential quarantine site for people experiencing homelessness who contracted coronavirus. They landed on Center City’s Holiday Inn Express — and Managing Director Brian Abernathy said at least 12 unsheltered people have checked in.

The city is on the cusp of signing leases with five additional facilities that will operate as quarantine spaces, Abernathy said at a Thursday press conference. Ideally, the six buildings will offer 750 total beds.

The Kensington drop-in site will be temporary — lasting “no longer than the COVID-19 crisis,” Dunn said.

The shelter’s staffers will screen people before they enter to determine if they’re showing symptoms of coronavirus. Any hallmark signs, like fever or a dry cough, will indicate that the person should be forwarded to receive medical care instead.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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