Frankford Civic meeting: “We have to harass the police,” says state rep. chief of staff

The 15th police district is often unresponsive to resident concerns about quality of life crimes, particularly so-called recovery homes, according to an impassioned call to action from state Rep. Tony Payton’s chief of staff at last night’s Frankford Civic meeting.

“We have to harass the police to get them to harass the criminals,” said Jorge Santana, Payton’s top legislative staffer.

Santana’s call came after another of the neighborhood’s monthly civic meetings broke down into a open venting of frustration over the ongoing battle with private boarding houses that are known citywide for selling themselves as places of recovery for people suffering from an array of addictions and instead devolving into havens for drug activity.

The meeting was again heavy on exasperation and short on action. Santana said Payton’s office – which, with Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, pledged legislative action – has slowed on the cause.

“This is a complex issue. We’re not ready with a bill. We can’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Santana said, citing a variety of political obstacles. His office still maintains that the first step is making a legal distinction for recovery homes at the state level, but gave no time line.

Heated exchange over Pratt and Duffield

The “trust level is just about nothing” between the Frankford Civic board and a young developer, according to a fiery retort from board member Tim Savage.

A proposed development for a lot at Pratt and Duffield streets that the city’s zoning commission said would have to be “100 percent Section 8” was heatedly rebuffed by Savage, among other board members.

Expecting the board’s disapproval over the subsidized-housing requirement, the developer came prepared with plans for a mini-storage facility.

“You have given us three different proposals, and haven’t been honest with us,” Savage said, his temper rising.

The matter was tabled to be brought up after plans for both the storage and subsidized housing developments could be compared by the board.

His surest answer was for residents to consistently and repeatedly call the police about the basic quality-of-life complaints that are tied particularly to these recovery homes, until they do something.

No representative from the 15th district was at the meeting, nor was one immediately available for comment.

Board member Tim Savage said many of the homes could be closed for violating a city zoning code that limits single-family properties to two unrelated residents, “but L&I isn’t doing its job,” he said. Tony Stevens, a board member and state Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione staffer, promised to put pressure on the city’s Inspector General office to ensure the city’s department of Licenes & Inspections looks more closely at the situation.

And so this debate has circled round and round throughout Philadelphia, but perhaps nowhere as consistently or as heatedly than in a second floor conference room of the Aria Health-Frankford Hospital, where the neighborhood civic meetings are held.

In Philadelphia, there are 21 state-licensed inpatient and outpatient facilities that receive funding from the city’s Office of Addiction Services — including a handful in the 19124 zip code — but by almost all accounts those are safe, clean and successful programs.

What has become an issue for nearly a year in Frankford are the privately-owned, multi-resident residences that bill themselves as recovery homes, a distinction without any legal meaning in Pennsylvania. Muddying the issue more is that — as a merry-go-round of recovery-home owners have testified at Frankford civic meetings — within this subset of “recovery homes” there are the good and the bad of these private homes.

There are those that are seen to fill an important role by offering recovery help and housing to the hundreds of people suffering from addiction who don’t make it into the very limited number of spots in the city’s 21 state-licensed, OAS-funded facilities. But then, critics and neighbors clamor, there are many that are a money-making operation that bring addicted people into a home, where their state aid is seized and they remain addicted and, some fear, violent — like 1522-24 Church Street.

That property’s owner is hoping to make it two dwellings, as reported by NEast Philly after Frankford’s last meeting, which board member Tim Savage says is a ploy to be able to legally squeeze more bodies into a house that is already been labeled a problem by residents.

One woman, who lives next to the property, brought her two teenage daughters to make a plea that action be taken.

“My husband gave me one year,” she said, before breaking into tears, “before he is going to make us move. I don’t want to move.”

They called the property’s backyard as an open and apparent drug market. The woman said she rarely sleeps through the night without being woken by screaming. Her daughters, she said, are harassed and approached by the male residents.

“This is not a recovery house,” said Payton’s chief of staff Santana, his voice rising above a handful of voices speaking in frustration. “This is a drug house.”

Santana stayed long after the meeting ended, speaking with the woman and urging her to call the police about every infraction until they choose to make a bolder action.

The woman said once a police officer went as far as entering the property, but soon after left without any action.

“It’s not a big enough problem for them yet,” Santana said of the 15th police district. “So then we have to make sure they know how big of a problem it is for us.”

Also at the meeting:  The owner of the Yum Yum restaurant, formerly a tax-preparer’s office, at 4671 Frankford Ave. agreed to stop selling take-out food and display a sign telling her customers that until she received the zoning clearance to do so.

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