Finding A Way Into Recovery At The First Stop

by Jeffrey Stockbridge

By Courtenay Harris Bond | Photos by Jeffrey Stockbridge

Jennie C. on her bunk in the women’s dorm at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

Jennie C., 32, had been abusing drugs for nearly 20 years before she recently stepped into the First Stop recovery house in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.

“The first time I actually injected it [heroin] I was 17,” said Jennie, who did not want to use her last name. “I had just graduated high school, and it was done from that point forward. Life just became different. I didn’t know it was going to end up the way it did. It was every day going forward.”

Living in the Poconos at the time, Jennie would travel to Kensington to buy drugs and then return home. Eventually, however, her parents kicked her out, and Jennie found herself in and out of jail, shifting from one person’s couch to another and sometimes sleeping on the street, and turning to sex work to pay for drugs.

Jennie C. on her bunk in the women’s dorm at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

“I’ve had some bad experiences on the streets,” Jennie said. “I’ve been taken advantage of. I’ve been robbed. I’ve been jumped. I’ve been raped. It’s not ok, but maybe it’s something I haven’t fully embraced or really, really thought about. But it kind of comes with the territory.”

Finally tired of ripping and running, Jennie landed at the First Stop about a month and half ago on a friend’s recommendation. There she stopped shooting heroin and smoking crack cold turkey. She had a rough week of withdrawal. And now she is complying with the recovery house’s time-honored 12-step fellowship program and becoming part of a community that is desperately trying to lift itself up without any government money or medical interventions such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid-use disorders. At a time when MAT is expanding across the country and being touted as the gold standard for getting people off of opioids during this crisis, the First Stop still promotes abstinence as the only way to go, despite vast evidence that MAT works.

The First Stop is not licensed to dispense Suboxone, methadone, or Vivitrol. Nor does its proprietor, Tony Gardner, a chiropractor from Bucks County, want to offer MAT since he sees it as “trading one addiction for another” — a view generally held by his residents but not by many other people in recovery, clinicians, and other centers of treatment.

“I did it cold turkey,” said Leanne Sharkey, the First Stop’s new house mom. “It means something more to you when you can walk through that struggle because really, it’s not a pleasant experience. That’s why everybody here is so harsh about cold turkey withdrawal, laying on the floor, because at the end of the day it will mean something to you. The easier, softer way is not always a good idea.”

Leanne Sharkey in her room at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

Gardner bought the four buildings and back lots that comprise the First Stop’s dormitories and clubhouse about a year and a half ago. Ever since, the First Stop has been breaking away from the Last Stop, another 12-step fellowship, which has moved to Kensington and Somerset. Gardner and his administrator Bonnie Ibisi, who scrambles each month to piece together enough money from residents’ rents and alumni donations to cover the bills, have dreams of transforming the First Stop into a community that sustains itself without outside aid and sends more people into recovery than its peers.

Their dreams seem like fantasies when touring the First Stop’s unfinished bunk rooms and chilly clubhouse with its cement floor and exposed piping. But they are dreams of self-improvement that are cohering this community of approximately 40 residents and the countless alumni who circle in and out each day for meetings or to help with renovations and repairs.

“We’ve got a ton of skilled labor,” Gardner said. “We’ve got master plumbers, master electricians, master carpenters, masons, all that kind of stuff. So once we get them cleaned up and back functioning in society, then eventually what I’d like to do is start our own construction company.”

Gardner recently acquired the adjacent grocery store and is in the process of renovating it and putting in a pizza oven. He is adding a new kitchen to the clubhouse because St. Francis, across the street where First Stop residents currently get meals, is closing soon. Gardner wants to put aquaponics systems on the rooftops to grow fish and vegetables, and he and Frank Aikens, the First Stop’s director, encourage alumni to take residents under their wings and teach them new skills.

“We’ll take anybody,” Gardner said. “If you have a police record or a warrant for your arrest, we don’t care. The first thing is we get you in here, get you cleaned up, work on your sobriety. Then we can work with you on your arrest record, on your warrants, and get all that stuff cleared up.”

Frank Aitkens at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

For the first 30 days, residents don’t pay rent, and they focus exclusively on getting sober under the watchful eye of Aikens, 56, a Kensington native and fixture, 30 years clean himself. Then he encourages them go out and get jobs.

Some people have lived at the First Stop (and in its former incarnation as the Last Stop) for years. But that’s not the goal.

Frank Aitkens at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

“It’s not just to come and they get detoxed and go back on the street again,” Aikens said. “But come in here, get clean and sober, go get a job, and become productive member of society. Get their own places, their own families.”

It’s a tough love, no frills system that doesn’t suit everyone but has been working for many people, such as Johnny Pipewrench, who has lived sober at the First Stop for nearly two years, earning a paycheck as a plumber.

Originally from Deptford, New Jersey, Pipewrench, 32, started messing with drugs in his early teens. But it wasn’t until he was hospitalized for a staph infection he contracted during a mixed martial arts fight that he became addicted to Percocet and eventually turned to heroin because it was cheaper.

“Everybody I hung out with, they all shot through needles and everything,”Pipewrench said. “I would always look at it like those guys are drug addicts, not so much me. But the thought would linger because they were saying this, they were saying that. So I was like ok, I’m going to try this once. The first time I tried it [injecting] was the last time I sniffed anything because all the other drugs can go through the needle too.”

Soon Pipewrench was homeless and involved in gang violence in Camden. Eventually despairing, and with enough money in his pocket to post himself in a motel with a hefty stash of drugs for several days,Pipewrench made a desperate plan.

Johnny Pipewrench at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.

“I didn’t really see a way out at the time,” said Pipewrench, who had already tried a few rehabs. “I said when this money runs out, I’m just going to jump off of this thing and hang it up.”

Luckily, an acquaintance in recovery found Pipewrench and convinced him to come to the First Stop.

“I got to the point where I was just like I can always kill myself later. What do I have to lose?” Pipebranch said. And so he was introduced to Aikens’ no-nonsense approach to getting clean.

“This wasn’t like anything I’d ever really been through,” Pipewrench said. “When you come off of the streets, and you come in here, some people would be thankful just to have roof over your head. But the way I grew up, sleeping on the floor and eating at a soup kitchen across the street was a lot of humility, and it really hit me hard because I always felt entitled or something. They told me I was a selfish person. They said you can either go hit the door whenever you want or you can buckle down and get through this.

“There were a lot of times where I thought I should leave,” Pipewrench continued. “I did walk in here with a little bit of money. I had the option to go take the rest of this money and go spend it on drugs and then maybe I can drop off the El or something like that.”

Instead, Pipewrench stuck with the program, got sober, and learned that “there ain’t nothing more productive or more positive for yourself than to help others.”

Sharkey, 39, is striving to do just that by watching over the other women in the program and making sure they get what they need — while also trying to stay sober herself.

“I’ve been struggling with this [addiction] since I was in my teens, on and off for many years,” Sharkey said, folding laundry in the women’s dorm. “I’ve had huge bouts of sobriety. I’d do really good, then I’d fall back. The runs kind of get shorter and less intense, but it’s sad. It really is a roller coaster, and you can’t say who’s done when they’re done, because there are people out there 60-, 70-years-old doing it.”

Right now, Sharkey is feeling hopeful about her future. She gets to see her son, 11, and her daughter is self-sufficient in college. And Sharkey likes her position at the First Stop, helping others understand some of what she has learned through decades of drug abuse.

Leanne Sharkey in the women’s dorm at the First Stop Recovery House, 2017.

“The beauty of being down here is that you’re really not alone,” Sharkey said. “You think your stuff is really major and that you’re the only one. But down here you quickly realize that you’re not the only one, and there’s a lot of support.”

Jennie is leaning on Leanne and others at the First Stop as she ticks off each new sober day, saying she’s still “wet behind the ears when it comes to life.”

Overall, though, Jennie says at this moment that she feels “good. I feel hopeful. There were a lot of blocks in the way of me getting clean in the past, and maybe it just wasn’t me being honest with myself. I feel I can do better, but it’s a process.”

Jennie C. on her bunk in the women’s dorm at the First Stop Recovery House on Kensington Avenue, 2017.