Women trickle into the small gymnasium of Rock Ministries in Kensington each Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. to find a few tables topped with several worn copies of the Bible and a modest breakfast spread waiting for them.
Seven of the women, who arrived together, headed straight for the table closest to the speaker’s podium with a swiftness reserved only for those who had clearly been to the meetings before. They flipped silently through their Bibles’ tattered pages to the book of Esther, shushing the rest of the room as the women-only support group meeting began.
In the month of November, this same number of women was raped in Kensington, enough to fill a table at the Rock Ministries support group meeting.
Though the women-only support group breakfast is open to any female working through problems with drug abuse, unhealthy relationships, and alcoholism, Marlo Panvini’s group of seven came together from her home and makeshift halfway house on East Glenwood Avenue.
Panvini, 32, decided to end her life of drugs and open her house to others after she was raped because the experience, a common one for the female addicts of Kensington, “should not have been normal.”
“I had gotten raped, beat, and strangled,” Panvini said. “It got me sober and made my life turn to the better.“
Panvini opened her own version of a halfway house for women that she named Bellevita, Italian for ‘beautiful life,’ last year and is working to help women get off the streets and back into a stable life. Her own assault, which led her to quit using drugs, was never prosecuted.
Sexual violence toward women and the methods of policing it have long been a source of difficulty for the notorious Kensington, a neighborhood located in the northeast section of Philadelphia.
Kensington has one of the highest rates of violence in the city, with more than 40 rapes reported in the neighborhood in 2015 alone according to the Philadelphia Inquirer Crime Records breakdown, which uses information reported by the Philadelphia Police Department and the U.S. Census Bureau.
Still, for the women of Kensington, prosecution can be tricky when the victims of the rape are known prostitutes in the area. Though prostitution is often thought of as a victim-less crime, a number of the women who turn tricks in Kensington are far from willing participants. Many are driven into having sex with strangers in exchange for heroin or cash that can later be spent to acquire drugs.
Some of the faces of the women who arrived at Rock Ministries were more weathered than others, with the youngest of the group only 19 years old. Still, all had experiences to share about drugs, the things they’d done to get high, and the nameless men who had taken advantage of them.
Despite her escape from the life of drugs, Panvini is not optimistic that Kensington will ever change.
“I don’t think it will ever stop,” Panvini said. “There are cops on every corner but people just gave up. Everyone finds out fast where the dealer is.”
Because prostitution is illegal, it’s often difficult to establish exact figures for the number of women assaulted while working as prostitutes. However, information published on Rapeis.org cited several studies that reported 68 percent to 70 percent of women in prostitution have been raped.
In 2010, a serial killer dubbed the “Kensington Strangler” murdered several female addicts who had been working as prostitutes along Kensington Avenue. The case was considered high profile and numerous media outlets, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, reported that the neighborhood had undergone a crackdown by local law enforcement in the search for the killer.
However an article published by The Daily Beast in August 2011 reported that after 22-year-old Antonio Rodriguez was arrested and charged with the murders, the presence of police in the neighborhood all but died down, leaving the area dubbed an unofficial drug-bust-free zone.
The Daily Beast quoted Philadelphia Police Department public-affairs officer Lt. Ray Evers as saying “there is no ‘hands-free zone’ in the city of Philadelphia, and there never will be. The article also said Evers “confirms that there were coordinated efforts to empty Kensington’s shooting galleries during the strangler’s killing spree, and he says this brought crime rates in the neighborhood way down.
He adds that the department does the best it can to guarantee public safety and stop drug use with the resources it has, but that it can’t lock up people without good reason.”
Now, Kensington is undergoing another police crackdown. Areas like McPhereson Square Park, better known to locals as “Needle Park,” have been cleaned up. SEPTA stations like the one at Kensington and Somerset streets are now actually being used by commuters for travel instead of operating as an open-air drug market. With the crackdown on drugs, comes a push to flush out the prostitution market.
Though there are several sections of Philadelphia well known for their problems with prostitution, Kensington is one of the more well-known parts. In June of 2013, the Philadelphia Police Department conducted a targeted sting operation against prostitution in Kensington.
In an interesting move by the police, local media was invited to broadcast the arrests of the johns and the impounding of the customers’ cars. Newsworks, one of the news outlets that tagged along on the sting operation, reported that the “effort was intended to dispel the notion that prostitution is a victimless crime, and bolster efforts aimed at improving the quality of life along the Kensington Avenue corridor.”
Still, in wake of inconsistent policing on the part of local law enforcement, the women of Kensington turn to other sources for help. There are more than a dozen locations like Rock Ministries with women-only drop in hours, aimed at targeting those in real need.
For now, Panvini and the rest of the women from her Bellevita halfway house will continue coming to the Wednesday morning meetings at the Rock Ministries. Faces new and old will filter in and out as always, but they know there will still be a spot and worn but soft, leather Bible waiting for them around the table.