Seated on a concrete ledge fronting the old Fidelity Bank building on Kensington Avenue at Huntingdon Street, a scrawny young prostitute smiles at passing cars. She seems lost in a heavy olive parka that doesn’t suit the unseasonably warm February night. The side of her neck bears a star tattoo, but she couldn’t appear more burned out.
She tells a stranger her name is Amanda, she’s 28, and she’s been selling herself for the past four years to support a heroin addiction.
“I need eight bags a day,” she says, “Right now I’m sick as shit. It’s rough.”
A few blocks down the Avenue, two self-described “missionaries in the United States” sit in a makeshift storefront parlor, hoping to meet Amanda soon.
The Christian missionaries—22-year-old Caitlin Callahan, a 2010 Indiana University grad who hails from Lebanon, Ind., and 28-year-old Kensington native Harry Winans—serve on the tiny staff of Pastor Frank Vega’s Inner City Missions at 2439 Kensington Ave., which has for years quietly served as a beacon for Kensington’s innumerable troubled souls.
Tonight, Callahan and Winans are manning Vega’s just-launched Cora Women’s Center, which the 57-year-old ex-con and recovered heroin addict hopes will inspire more than a few “Amandas” to come in from the street and reinvent themselves.
Timing-wise, the women’s center’s birth (its doors opened Feb. 8) neatly coincides with the Kensington Strangler killing spree that left three local prostitutes dead. “I think the Strangler thing made us launch it quicker to provide a safe haven for women,” says the good-natured Vega, a married father of six. “But it’s something I wanted to do long ago. I just didn’t have the people. Then (Callahan) came on staff, and this was one of her visions. So it came together.”
Besides discovering safety, Vega hopes some of the women who drop in, perhaps out of curiosity or simply for coffee, will allow him and his staffers to steer them toward addiction treatment, health care, housing assistance and other good stuff.
“It’s an open-door place where women on the street and even not on the street can come,” he says. “We’re going to have volunteer counselors here, free HIV testing (on the third Wednesday of every month), music, fellowship. They can have coffee, talk to one another, get counseling, resources.”
The aptly-named center—Callahan says that in Greek, Cora means both “girl” and “filled heart”—provides tangible items, too. A table in the corner is topped with a dozen or so blue bags, each of which contains toothpaste, a toothbrush, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, Band-Aids, a razor, a comb, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner and a month’s supply of women’s vitamins. Although not included in the bags, feminine hygiene items are also available. “We need to meet the women’s physical needs,” Callahan says. “If you can’t meet physical needs, you can’t meet spiritual needs.”
While emphasizing that no one at Inner City Missions forces religion on anyone, Callahan—whose modest salary is paid entirely by donors, many from her small-town Indiana church—adds that spirituality indeed matters here. She says she’s listened as many ex-addicts testified about repeatedly failing in attempts to conquer dope and other personal problems before asking God to join their fight.
Winans, with a shaved pate and a laid-back demeanor (he also generates his salary through donations), represents a case in point.
Released from SCI-Frackville 15 months ago after serving nine years of an eight-to-20-year sentence for third-degree murder (he maintains the victim’s death was accidental), he says he struggled with alcoholism and low self-esteem before getting right with God. Still required to see his parole officer monthly, he hooked up with Vega last summer. “My mother was a drug addict,” Winans says, “and my father was a drug dealer. Then at 18 years old I found myself in a prison cell. But that’s where I met Jesus, and he gave me love, acceptance and approval. So now I go out on these streets and give it away. I don’t care if she’s selling her body, I don’t care if he’s a drug dealer. I’m not there to judge them. I’m there to help them.”
Similar sentiments propelled Vega to found Inner City Missions, which serves men and women alike, in 1994.
Raised at Third and York streets after arriving from his native Puerto Rico at age 2, Vega was physically abused as a boy and, seeking to numb his pain, turned to heroin and street crime. “I had a lot of issues,” he says. “And all I got from others was criticism. I tell people that it was easier for me to stick a needle in my arm than to look in the mirror and see who I really was. But I also always tell people that nobody wakes up one morning and says, ‘I want to be a drug addict’ or ‘I want to be a prostitute.’”
In the late 1980s, aware that the police were after him for his most recent offense, Vega turned himself in and detoxed in jail without medication or professional assistance. Convinced a divine power steered him through the stormy seas of withdrawal, he’s now been sober 24 years.
Perhaps Vega’s smartest innovation at Inner City has been his cultivation of future missionaries by inviting teams of volunteer college students from schools across the nation to visit Kensington for a week during their Christmas, spring and summer breaks. The students sleep nights at the mission, but by day come face-to-face with junkies and other downtrodden types at drug-infested intersections such as Kensington and Somerset.
Callahan got her first taste of Kensington’s seamy streets on such a pilgrimage during her 2007 spring break, and she’s never looked back, even though her parents aren’t wild about her living here. “At this point I can’t imagine being anywhere but in Kensington,” she says. “I love Kensington.”
On a recent overcast morning, Vega, Callahan and Winans discuss the women’s center with a visitor when a slightly built man toting a backpack raps on the window requesting a cup of water. Once inside the mission, he announces that he’s addicted to heroin and wants to get off the streets, where he’s spent the past 20 years. He says he’s HIV-positive and afraid of dying.
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4