Neighbors, supporters remain at odds over Kemble Park project

While some Ogontz residents continue to fight the city’s plan to bring supervised housing for two at-risk groups to the former Kemble Park apartments, officials say the law is on their side and the project is urgently needed.

The plan for the old Kemble Park property, at 5701 Kemble Ave., includes the creation of Morris Home, a first-of-its kind transitional housing and treatment facility for 18 formerly homeless transgender and gender variant people. In another part of the site, the Sojourn Program would move in a larger group of seniors, most with mental health issues and other medical needs, from a nearby high-rise building.

Both groups are specifically protected under city law, which prevents housing discrimination based on “race, ethnicity, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, disability, marital status, source of income, familial status, genetic information and domestic or sexual violence victim status.”

Opponents of the plan, including the newly-formed A Concerned Community Association, say it’s less about who the residents are than way the project has been planned and executed. They claim a series of building permits issued on the site calling for the construction of apartments don’t disclose the real intended use of the property — a residential treatment facility.

Activists: There is a need for these facilities

City officials and activists working with Philadelphia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community say there is overwhelming need for a facility like Morris Home. Sade Ali, a deputy commissioner in the department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, spearheaded the Morris Home idea and is overseeing its creation with Resources for Human Development, which will operate the program.

Ali said the idea was in part inspired by an experience she had in her previous work in New Haven, Conn., where a young transgendered Latina was told she could only use resources for men because of her biological gender.

It was “a very sad experience with my clinicians,” Ali said, but typical of the experiences of people needing social services whose gender identity doesn’t fit neatly into the biological binary.

“I always felt like I failed her, and I took it personally, and that woman never left my heart,” she said.

Once in Philadelphia, Ali found information through the city’s Trans-Health Information Network that an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 trans- and gender-variant people were in need of services, from access to safe hormones to peer counseling. The number is hard to estimate because many are living on the streets or under the radar, Ali said.

“We’ve got a waiting list already of people who really need this service,” Ali said. “This is the first program of its kind in the country. There are shelters, but this isn’t a shelter. This is going to be a full-service residential treatment facility.”

Neighbors are wary, offended

Concerned neighbors say they have no problem with transgender residents at Kemble Park plan, but are opposed to the mental and behavioral-health aspects. They suggest the city is focusing almost exclusively on the Morris Home component — which is a half the size of the Sojourn Program — in an attempt to make them appear intolerant.

“They’re trying to do a [home for] drug and alcohol, homeless, transgender, mental/behavioral challenged, 58-to-70 year-old people on a permit for a 50-unit apartment building,” said lawyer Yvonne Haskins, who has been appealing to city officials on ACCA’s behalf.

In a Nov. 14 letter to Frances Burns, commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections, Haskins questioned the office’s practice of issuing permits based solely on the word of the applicant without investigating the actual intended use. She made similar arguments, so far unsuccessful, in appeals of permits on the Chelten Plaza shopping center in Germantown.

Haskins said Friday that she hasn’t received a response to the letter yet and is considering filing permit appeals.

ACCA was organized in September by residents of Ogontz and Belfield who felt concerns about the project were being ignored and that a deal had been struck through City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller’s office without enough community involvement. There have been at least five public meetings about the project over the last year, along with several protest rallies at the site.

Ali pushed back at concerns about the Sojourn Program, where the adults are supervised but live somewhat independently and interact with the community.

“These are elders who wouldn’t know how to hurt a fly. Is it a jail? No, it’s not a jail,” she said. “I don’t know how many more ways we can tell them what’s going to happen in the community. The program has not changed.”

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Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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