The hangout moonlights as an outreach center.
Kensington Avenue might be the city’s most maligned thoroughfare. You’ve either seen firsthand the distressed streetscape or have heard stories of the drug activity, prostitution and crime that is all too common there. In an August 2011 PW cover story, we profiled the city’s Top 10 drug corners, which are all on or around Kensington Avenue. And you know the hardships are many when they aren’t known only to locals. The Daily Mail in London recently wrote, “On Philadelphia’s Kensington Avenue, the desperation is palpable.”
But right at the center of it all—in “the belly of the beast,” as manager Jimmy Gee refers to it—stands SKA coffee shop (which stands for Summerfield Kensington Avenue), a unique outreach effort that the Summerfield-Siloam United Methodist Church initiated in August 2011. Dan Roth, pastor of the Fishtown-based church, and Gee recently spoke with PW to detail some of the work SKA has done in the past year in an effort to help addicts, prostitutes and those who are down on their luck improve their lives.
What makes SKA different from rehab clinics?
Dan Roth: Well, it’s not like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or something … the primary purpose is to have it open and available for an extended period of time, (the shop is open until at least 8 p.m. most nights and nearly midnight Fridays and Saturdays) so, it can be known as a place where people can come and get help.
Jimmy Gee: It’s a place where someone who’s sober can come and have coffee or a snack, and it’s also a place where we try to do whatever is necessary to help someone get sober or help them stay sober … We can help get them to AA and NA oriented programs, but we can also get them leads for housing, clothes and food.
Why did you want to create a place like SKA?
DR: Well, it was never really about making money. At first, we were stretched really thin and we didn’t know if we had the resources. But, I spent a lot of time in prayer about it and I really felt that it was something God wanted us to do ... The church came-- up with seed money. We started it off with just $1,500. It’s a place where if someone comes in and they want to get to a sober house or recovery or get a sponsor, they can do that.
JG: That’s not just what it’s about. It’s easy to help people who want help. We are out here in the belly of the beast, man. Prostitutes are across the street, right there. But, this is a blessing, because we get to talk to all these people. This is where we need to be.
You’ve been on the avenue for more than a year. Have you seen SKA make an impact on the local community?
DR: That’s the thing. I’d say we have sent at least 100 people to sober or recovery houses, probably well over that.
JG: Yeah, at least. It’s the miracle on Kensington Avenue, man ... People come in here, and I can tell they’re sick, and we get to talking. Next thing you know, I’ve got them in the car on the way to detox.
How are you able to connect with an addict or a prostitute in order to be able to help?
JG: It’s just talking. I was an addict for 18 years, an alcoholic for 53. In fact, today (Tuesday, Sept. 18) is my anniversary. Thirty years off of heroin … You just talk. Tell them about what makes you happy, the blessings we get free from it, and they’ll ask “How do I do that?” It takes an addict to help an addict sometimes, and you can do a lot just hanging out having a cup of coffee ... That’s what it’s all about, helping somebody else.
SKA is located at 2416 Kensington Ave. For more information, visit skaphilly.com.