Edited Audio Transcript
Debbie McConnell: So, this is from my first Christmas home.
Jeffrey Stockbridge: So this is a wall of photos here of your family?
DM: Yeah, this is my brothers and sisters. And as you’ll notice, I’m not in any of them because I wasn’t here. 2014 I got out. I’ve been out since 2014. June 16th I got out.
My name is Debbie McConnell, and I am living in Staunton, Virginia now and I have 7 years clean.
I don’t remember exactly what I clicked on online to find, you know, the Kensington Blues page, but I saw something and I said let me click on this. I remembered a guy taking pictures down there.
I remember writing in a journal, but I don’t see my journal entry. But I remember writing something. So, I was like let me look through this and see what it’s about. So, I watched a little short video of the documentary and then I was like, you know, I know all the people on it. And so I went clicking down all the things and I found the archives. So, I just started going through every single person and when I clicked on Justine I was like, that’s me, haha. But my name is not Justine, I guess I said it was, but I was just like wow, that is so crazy.
I didn’t email you right away, I guess it had been like a month before and then I figured well, let me see if there is a way to get in contact with him because I thought well, there is not a lot of the good stories coming out of some of the people, because I know a lot of them have passed away and um, so I said I thought it would be neat to at least have some good, you know, following that… Um… You know, the one girl Corrine had just passed away in a terrible way, I don’t know if you had heard about that but she’s in there and her journal is and um she was a good friend of mine for many, many years. We were in jail together, we were on the street together. We fought each other, I mean it was- we, we had been through hell and back, so that was sad to see.
JS: It must be pretty crazy um, you know having been there on the avenue been close with a lot of people on the avenue who didn’t make it, but you made it. Why do you think you made it?
DM: Only because I’m not there no more, because I feel like if I ever went back I am sure it would be the death of me. I remember just sitting there thinking I can’t do this anymore. I can’t, I just can’t do it. I’ve been raped like four or five times, I only got beat up once, thank God. I don’t think you have Marlo in the book. Is she in the book? Do you know who Marlo is? Ok, I didn’t see her on there. But I remember when she got beat bad, by I think it was the Kensington Strangler, and like they found her, with her face out to here, just in a bra walking down the street. And she didn’t get clean and, you know, you always think, whats the bad thing that’s going to happen to make you do this?
Well, anyway, I got locked back up. The cops came there for an unrelated thing, they ran my name- I had been wanted here, in Virginia, since 2006. So, this was December 1, 2010, they extradited me out here. I did three and a half years and in that time I just, uh, my sister passed away. Um, she’s on the wall over there. She’s up there with graduation thing. She, she passed away and I hadn’t talked to her in like five or six years. And, um, I hadn’t talked to my family, none of them, except my littlest sister, and they showed up at the jail to tell me that my sister had died.
Then they never stopped coming, my mom kept coming, and kept coming and said like life’s too short, and I just realized… that it is and I don’t want to ever go that much time without my family or die that way. And not have talked to them and… then I have nieces and nephews now I have kids, I have six kids, but I have my one daughter that I talk to all the time. And you know my dad use to come up there and be like, ‘I am going to drop her off up here with you if that will get you straight… and, um, but I love my, I love my, my family you know… That’s the biggest thing. I don’t want to lose my family again. It’s just so important, um, it’s just me and my mom. I feel that my mom needs me. And I need her. And so, I just said I wasn’t gonna go back. And I did go back, to visit, I took the train two years ago for my birthday because I wanted to see my daughter. And I got down there, and I got in a fight with my dad, and he hit me. And he put me out on the street and I wasn’t Philly, we were in a suburb, in Montgomery County. And he was like ‘Oh your just picking a fight, you want your friends to come pick you up because you want to go back down to the Ave.’ I had no such intention, I wasn’t even thinking about the Ave. But I didn’t, I just caught the next train home and just came home.
It was just something in jail. While I was just sitting there, I just thought to myself that it was it for me, like you know, just, nothing great happened, you know, it wasn’t a grand realization or anything, I just thought about it and thought about it and just, it just kinda went away for me, the desire to live that life because I, I just, just, it just went away. Thankfully, because I never thought it would.
And you know, it’s funny because when I first started getting high, the girls would say, all the girls in Bucks County jail were always like, ‘you’re a wannabe addict. You, you want, you know- you’re not really an addict’. Like, I don’t know why, they thought I just wanted to be that person for some reason. I just was. But, I came from a good family, and a good neighborhood. I didn’t live in Kensington, I lived in Bucks County. And it was just a boyfriend and his sister, and um, that’s just how I got started. And just ended up down there, because that’s what she did. So, I was just, like, I’m just going to go down there, and I just went down there one day and I just never left, I got stuck. And that was from 2001 to basically 2010. Now, I’ve been in the jail more than I been on the street. I have 95 charges on my record. So, that’s my biggest struggle now, is, you don’t realize what you’re doing to your life. Whenever the day comes that you decide you don’t want to do that anymore. You create a lot of hardship for when you are trying to get right. Like, as far as jobs, and gettin’, gettin’ somewhere in life, you know. I’ve had jobs, you know, I’ve been out three years and I’ve been working. But I haven’t been able to get into a decent job that pays decent because of my record, and Virginia can go back your whole record, so it looks really bad, I have 95 charges.
It was a struggle getting out, but I didn’t think about getting high. I mean, I have days now, today, where I think about it but the good outweighs the bad. You know I can’t, I never want… I can’t even picture being on Kensington Ave. That weekend, when I was there, after I had been locked up for a year, when I went out there, and I am pretty sure that picture is from that weekend, and I remember saying I can’t do this, I just cant. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I can’t even imagine what it would be like today to be out there.
And I had a picture of myself… I had sold my hair. My hair was down to here. I had sold it and it was up to here, and I looked horrible. I was skinny, and just, I didn’t look right. The days that I had bad days, I would look at that picture. I showed it to mom, she starts crying. She’s like, ‘Oh my God’, because she had been down to Kensington a million times looking for me and trying to get me to come home. And I would never go.
JS: You say the good outweighs the bad… What’s the good?
DM: Just my family. Just I know that if I ever got high again I would never be able to see my niece and nephew again. I don’t think my mom would stand by me again through another, you know, prison sentence, or whatever. I’ve never, I’ve been on probation since 2001. I still have two more years, I’ve never given a dirty urine, I’ve held a job, and I mean that’s, that’s something to me- Thats a big accomplishment for me because I haven’t accomplished anything… So… And so I’ve been a cab driver for a year, so I’ve talked to a lot of people, and there are drugs here too. And most of the people that I know are on drugs, the big drug out here is Meth. I’ve tried it before, years ago and I don’t like it. Um, and I try to help them, like I try to tell them, they have no clue though, it’s not the same here, they’re…they don’t have… they have no idea. When I tell them some stories, they think I am talking about a movie or something, they can’t even comprehend that that was real life.
My mom tells me I am too open with people, but I feel like, if I go and apply for a job or something, and if I tell them about who I am or who I was, and how far I’ve come along, changed to be who I am now, that you know… some people can look past the record part of it and, and give me a chance because, I’m a hard worker, I don’t miss work, I can’t afford to, I need money. You know, you need money to live, so.
JS: So you think that like physically removing yourself from Kensington was an absolute necessity?
DS: It’s a big part of it. It doesn’t matter where you go, there is heroin here, people are dropping like flies here because of the fentanyl in the heroin, which I know it’s bigger in Philly, but it’s just, it’s just not worth it. It’s just not worth it to me. To just loose… I mean, I’ve come so far- Everything I have in my room I, I worked for. All the clothes I wear, my perfumes, my jewelry, I bought that stuff. You know, so to own things that you actually pay for, you know, I can’t imagine how much money I made in Kensington, but I had nothing to show for it. And I got lucky- I have no tracks, if I don’t tell somebody that I was a drug addict they would never know. But… I looked like hell, haha, you know, I looked like hell and when I show people pictures they’re like ‘that’s not you.’ I’m like, that was me.
JS: I think it’s awesome that you… You’re not trying to hide from your past and that you offer that information to people, as well. That you tell them about your past to try to you know let them know who you are, and that you, in spite of your past, you’re still a good person. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DM: Well yeah, even like when it comes to dating, like I’ve been single forever. But like, I try to date, but every time… I never meet, or I’ll meet a nice guy, but I have, I have too much for him. You know, they, they don’t, they’re like, they’re running because they’re like, holy shit, you know, hahah. But….You know, that’s not me anymore. I don’t live that life, you know, but when you tell people sometimes, they’re like, if you say you were a prostitute or you shot up drugs you know, automatically they assume you have diseases and all kinds of things, and so, um, I think I sometimes, I’m maybe too forthcoming with information. But that was my life, for a really… ten years. You know, ten years is a long time, So I don’t, I still, to this day, don’t know what I like to do for fun without being high, because I was always high.
But I feel like I’m a better person because of what I lived through and, like, I know a lot of things that I can teach others. Like, that’s what I initially asked probation, if I could go to like the juvenile detention center and talk to those people that are just thinking about getting involved in drugs. I mean, I know they’ll never be as bad as what that is down there in Kensington, but, you know, if it could help them just a little bit, to deter them, like, oh my God, I would never want to go through things like that, you know, …. (Phone rings) Let me just get that real quick.
DM: Hello. Hey, what’s up? What are you doing? Ok. Ok. Love you. Love you, bye.
JS: Was that your mom?
DM: Yeah. She just got finished getting her hair done. I need to go buy a shirt, cause I do start a waitressing job tomorrow, which I’ve never done, and the manager knows me from eating there and complaining about, haha, the drinks. So, he said, ‘You have to be nice to people Debbie.’ That’s another thing, it is very different here, people don’t get me here. I am very obnoxious to them because I’m just blunt, say it, whatever. They don’t do that here. So, they look at me like I’m kinda mean or rude, but I don’t mean it to be that’s just what I’m used to, that’s just how people are in the city, they’re not like that here. So, I kinda stick out.
Edited Audio Transcript
Laura Talbert: My name is Laura, I am Debbie’s mom. Um, Debbie and I have had some issues, um, since she was young, quite young. Um, you know, it started out with a little bit of legal trouble here and there, um sadly it turned in to her addiction. Um, as a mom, it’s very hard, very hard, to watch your child go through this. Um, I have been to Kensington, I have walked the streets, I have begged her to come with me, back home. Um, made sure she had shoes on her feet, um there are times I went down there and she wouldn’t, she just wouldn’t leave, and you know she was of age, I couldn’t make her do it but made sure she had food and clothes or shoes, whatever she might need. And you know, my heart breaks. My heart now, even thinking about, um, those days because for her not to come home, and there were a couple times you know, I’m gonna be totally straight up and honest, that I have gave her money for drugs to get her in my car, to get her to my home, and out of Kensington. And, she did that and that very next day- If she was in jail I knew she was safe. Three meals a day, she wasn’t on drugs. So, as a mom, I had to make that decision. What do you do? She’s not gonna come with you and it’s only gonna get worse, and how long can you watch your child go through this, and I made the conscious decision as a mom, to buy the drugs for her, to get her… Trick her, actually is what I did, and made sure that she ate and what have you, and slept and… but the next day I called the police and you know turned her in, and I knew, I knew she was safe then. And she hated me, she hated me, there were years went by- we didn’t talk. Um… the death of her sister- She was in prison, I had to go there and tell her, you know, her sister had passed away.
This last time in jail I told her this is it. You know. I made sure she had what she needed while she was in there, um, she at least had food, could make phone calls, what have you, but the day she got out of jail I told her, ‘The next time you go back to jail, we are back on that tough love train, because if you are helping yourself, I’m your mom and I will help you.’ But I’ve seen so much heartache and so much tragedy, and she has seen it now herself, because so many of the people that you have interviewed or even talked to, have died, or when the strangler was down there, that was like, to be the mom of… and you know…and I will tell you one thing that I asked her to do- Please tattoo my phone number on your body. That is how, how worried I was, how concerned, because if I thought I was going to burry a child I really thought it was going to be her. And I didn’t want her to be one of those people, in Kensington that they found and couldn’t get a hold of family or what have you. So I did, I begged her.
Now, I couldn’t be prouder of her. Um, she’s worked very hard, very, very hard these past two years.
That’s where we’re at, we’re just, you know, buddies at this point. We’re just two fish in a fish bowl but you know… We lean on each other and we yell at each other, and we laugh with each other, um, but she looks great. She’s doing great. Um, I just, I’m really, very proud of her. Even though I figure she’s my one child that’s never gonna leave home… So, everything I do is, my thoughts are in twos, which is fine. She’ll find her way at some point, but you know it doesn’t matter how old you get, um, your mom’s your mom.
By Courtenay Harris Bond | Photos by Jeffrey Stockbridge
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
Matt Neal is a survivor. This is his story.
JS: What specifically turned things around for you?
MN: In all seriousness, I firmly believe that all of the thoughts and prayers of my family and friends instilled in me a little faith. I finally SET STILL, and I like to say I “WAS SET” STILL, long enough to allow the process to take hold. I was released from jail in the summer of 2014 on the condition that I have an address, per my judge. My caseworker at Prevention Point Philadelphia was able to do this by linking me to a safe haven, a shelter of sorts, with Project HOME called St. Colomba. My health continued to deteriorate and I had two, one-month long stays in Kensington Hospital receiving IV antibiotic therapy for the sepsis in my system (MRSA) and chronic osteomyelitis in my left ankle. Due to the severity of my addiction, I was still unable to stay clean. Again, with urges from both Prevention Point and Project HOME I was encouraged to go to inpatient treatment. This was long term, trauma focused, medication assisted treatment (MAT) at Kirkbride for 4 months. I was then admitted to Presbyterian Hospital for a month to have my left leg amputated below the knee. All the while, behind the scenes Prevention Point was working to get my “111” status, a status deeming a person chronically homeless. This status enabled me to be admitted into the Journey of Hope, Miracles in Progress program here in Philadelphia for long term treatment. I participated in that program for a year before receiving housing. As far as treatment was concerned, when I received my housing I was and still am linked to outpatient care at Golman Clinic, MAT. I must interject that throughout my active addiction and this early time in recovery I also received excellent care from doctors, nurses and case management staff at Philadelphia FIGHT.
JS: Did anyone or any type of treatment help the most?
MN: One aspect of the treatment world that was practiced by nearly all, if not all of the clinicians that crossed my path is Harm Reduction. It was effective. It worked. It saved my life. For me to single out just one or two individuals that impacted my life would not give credit to ALL of the persons that were involved and still to this day are involved in recreating my life. Further, I must add that the clinicians who cared, dare I say loved me enough, to tell me that I was, at one point, with a liver transplant looking at two years of life left while at the same time being compassionate enough to offer to tie my shoe (as my belly was distended to the point I had difficulty doing this for myself), left indelible imprints on me and the person I am and aspire to become.
JS: What kind of advice would you give to someone struggling?
MN: I would encourage them not to give up, continue to try, and keep knocking on the proverbial door. I would strongly encourage them to not be afraid or ashamed of who they are and where they are. I would do my best to show the person the way I was shown, that they MATTER! I say the latter because getting me to the point where I was even willing to consider treatment, despite the atrociousness of my life, was a process. I was ALLOWED to be me and was met where I was. There was no need too great or too small that wasn’t addressed.
JS: What do you hope to do in the future?
MN: Hmmmm, what do I want to do in the future?? Ideally, I would like to finish my education. I have 91 credit hours in total from both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I do not see myself finishing my education in Music. At one point I was pursuing a Vocal Performance degree and was 2nd in the State and 3rd in the Region based on my year of study… I see myself pursuing something in the field of Social Work, Psychology, or Sociology. My life experiences have helped refine this path.
I would also like to note that by no means am I the poster boy for success in the field of addiction. There are many successes.
After taking a much needed break so that I could edit and produce the Kensington Blues book and exhibition, I am happy to announce that I am getting back to work. I’ve decided to significantly broaden the scope of the project. I’ll be introducing a number of new segments including follow up interviews with past subjects, stories of recovery, collaborative reporting with journalists and Kensington Blues: Your Story, a page dedicated to re-thinking how we think about addiction. Stay tuned!
Matt Neal and Jeffrey Stockbridge at Savery Gallery, 2017. Matt is pictured in the bottom left photo from 2011. Photo by Stephen Perloff