Bridge school for boys argues its case for moving into Northwood

Marquis planned on running away when he got to The Bridge school for boys, but he didn’t.

The fit 18-year-old was sent five months ago to the transition facility after being arrested for a petty theft charge, and he said upon arrival he was surprised to feel welcomed.

“There wasn’t fighting. It wasn’t a prison,” he said last night at the Northwood Civic Association meeting [See other photos of the meeting on our Facebook page here]. “The Bridge helped me change my life.”

Now he says he’s preparing for his official GED test and has already started some college preparatory school. He has gone from “only making oodles of noodles” to aspiring for a culinary arts education. Marquis was accompanied by Andrew, who was sporting a goatee and glasses and shared his own story of wanting to avoid the path of his parents, whom he said are drug addicts.

“I thought I was going to be a bum like my mom and my dad,” said Andrew, who has taken classes in plumbing and security camera installation. “Now tomorrow I’m taking the final GED test.”

Those are stories that Bridge Program Director Michael Ogden says he wishes would get out more. He’ll need stories like them if he and the rest of Bridge administration can coax a letter of support from the Northwood Civic Association toward their moving from their Fox Chase headquarters to new property along Adams Avenue.

Bridge Program Director Michael Ogden facing students Andrew and Marquis
(Bridge Program Director Michael Ogden facing students Andrew and Marquis)

“We’re the only facility for young men in the City of Philadelphia. If we want to continue to do the work we do with these young men, we have to stay in the city because of the kind of work we do a lot of the families who live here,” Ogden told more than 50 residents in attendance. “There just aren’t many pieces of property like this in the city anymore.”

The Bridge is a residential treatment program for adolescent boys aged 14-18 and a subsidiary of Center City-based Public Health Management Corporation, which has facilities throughout the country. Since 1971, the Bridge facility has been on the campus of the Medical Mission Sisters at 8400 Pine Road in a big, wooded parcel of land in Fox Chase.

“We’ve been there 40 years and are 150 yards from residential homes. We have never had a problem,” says Program Director Ogden. “We don’t want to leave, we love it up there.”

But Medical Mission Sisters is consolidating some area facilities and is asking the Bridge to vacate so they can expand their own services. That has sent the Bridge and its parent company PHMC searching for a new location.

Single family moving into 4712 Castor

An attorney who pledges to move his family in and stay has the deed to a troubled property in Northwood.

Frank Bennett, a real estate lawyer formerly living in the Five Points area near Burholme, bought ownerships rights to 4712 Castor Avenue across from Northwood Park and near Pat’s Cafe. He introduced himself and brought along his wife and four small children to the Northwood Civic Association meeting.

The six-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom stone manse at the corner of Castor and Herbert Street has long had overgrown property and issues with squatters, drugs and vagrants, Bennett said. While he has plans to move his family into the house once the dilapidated property is renovated, he said he is in negotiations with Countrywide Insurance over the $280,000 owed on one mortgage and an apparent $30,000 owed on another.

“We were looking for a move. It was either move outside the city or stay inside the city. I’ve decided to commit to the community,” Bennett told the crowd. “I have always been in the Northeast and hope to remain here.”

Bennett owns five properties and they are all single occupancy, he said. He thinks subletting a single family property is “the worst thing you cans do to a community,” so he pledged not to do so with this house.

Ogden and company say the eight acre spot at 1100 Adams Avenue just north of the Frankford Creek behind the KMart parking lot and across from the Juniata Golf Club is perfect. The lot is currently being used for short dumping of construction materials from the demolition company that owns it. The Bridge is seeking a long-term lease and the civic association’s support in seeking the appropriate licenses and permits to create a roughly four acre campus.

The average length of stay is 4.2 months, Ogden says, though Maurice is going on his eighth month and Andrew his fifth. All students are in some form of educational program, he added.

The facility won’t have more than 40 beds, Ogden says, noting that their current facility has just 38. All classroom environments have no more than 12 students per teacher and at all times there is at least one staff member to each six students.

Funding primarily comes from the city’s Community Behavioral Health department, in addition to some private revenue. Students are referred by schools and courts, in addition to others who apply, but there is a selection process, Ogden says. The facility is licensed by relevant city and state agencies, including the Department of Health and Department of Welfare.

A point was brought up that in addition to residential teenage services, the Bridge does offer limited appointment-only, individual outpatient services for adults. Wary of nearby Frankford’s issues with recovery homes, Ogden answered resident concerns by confirming that no rehabilitative methadone or any other drugs are prescribed at the facility. There is structure from a 6:30 a.m. wake up call to a 9 p.m. curfew, Ogden said.

Attorney Frank Bennett, who recently moved into the neighborhood (see sidebar at right), raised concerns that moving from the more distant Fox Chase to the more heavily transited Northwood would present an increase in escapism at the facility, which doesn’t lock down its teenage residents.

“We have a good track record at keeping kids here because we show them what the alternative is,” Ogden said, noting there are no violent offenders allowed.

When it comes to flight, student representative Andrew said he lived near the current Bridge location in Fox Chase and could have runaway if he wanted to.

“But the staff makes you feel so welcome that you want to do good,” he said. “It makes me feel more like a human than a caged animal, without the bars and fences. That makes me feel a whole lot more comfortable.”

More importantly, crime already happens there in the blighted, dumping lot along Adams Avenue, said State Rep. Tony Payton Chief of Staff Jorge Santana, and this project “at least brings in accountability and jobs.” The Bridge has 58 employees, the majority of whom are on full-time with benefits, Ogden says.

A specific time line on moving the project forward wasn’t released, though, in an effort to gain community support, Bridge representatives would next present specific zoning proposals before taking them to the Philadelphia Zoning Board.

Though some residents conveyed a mood of opposition early, by the meeting’s end, the more vocal people voiced hesitant support.

“I’m trying to get a resident in there,” said Northwood President Barry Howell, who himself seemed to express restrained approval for the project. “We can be smart about this.”

Also at the meeting, Howell said it is a “slow process” in dealing with the controversial Volunteers of America disabled center at Allengrove and Roosevelt Blvd., as was discussed at the last Northwood meeting. An update wouldn’t be ready until next meeting, he said.

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