Barbara Haggert, 53, counts herself as one of the few people who has moved to Kensington for its perks.
She didn’t bat an eye when she told of her relocation away from her daughter, friends, family, and old job in South Philadelphia to live out a better life in the notoriously troubled neighborhood.
The high volume of charitable organizations in Kensington was ideal for staving off Haggert’s alcoholic tendencies and economic woes, which were more difficult to manage in south Philadelphia.
“I’m not alone up here,” Haggert said. “Before, the only [people] I could go to was my family.”
Haggert is one of the many who benefit from the numerous churches and charity programs that have managed to blossom in the shade of the El. For every problem in Kensington – drugs, alcohol, prostitution, abuse, or hunger – there is a grassroots effort to counter it.
Over the years, opponents of increasing state and federal aid for those living below the poverty line have argued that people abuse the system. On paper, Haggert may appear to be one of those people. However in person, her burnt-out appearance and frail demeanor tell a different story. Though sober for six years, she has struggled with mental illness that prevents her from keeping a steady job.
Every day of the week Haggert says there is a different shelter or charity offering a free meal or place to spend time out of the cold.
On Sundays, Haggert begins her mornings at the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center, located at 2646 Kensington Ave. Her wiry salt-and-pepper hair and stained, blue jacket makes her stand out from the packs of Hispanic children running around. The center offers after-school programs, GED and English classes, intramural sports, and drop-in hours for women. Free spaces in the center are often rented out to Dominican and Honduran councils.
The Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger estimates that there are more than 700 food pantries and soup kitchens citywide. Currently, the poverty rate in Kensington is at an astounding 46.9 percent, more than double the city rate. Many in Kensington, like Haggert, benefit from non-profits and public programs such as food stamp assistance to help them get by.
According to the Coalition’s website, “Food pantries are experiencing more demand but are less equipped to help. For example, in 2013, there was a 7 percent increase in requests for emergency food assistance in Philadelphia, but the city’s emergency food assistance budget decreased 32 percent.”
Since then, the Coalition announced Jan. 5, 2015, that it had partnered with 57 organizations on a briefing paper for Governor Tom Wolf entitled “Meeting Pennsylvania’s Hunger Challenge,” which highlights the impact of hunger on children and older residents and urges increased action as he begins his term as governor.
The charities in Kensington, however, offer more than just supplemental access to food. When Haggert’s apartment was broken into, her landlord said he would not replace the lock on her door. The volunteers at the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center composed a letter for Haggert compelling the landlord to provide a lock and threatening legal action if he failed to do so within a week.
Every block or so in Kensington, a line of people can be found winding the corner, waiting patiently to be let inside. Sometimes they are waiting for a clean bed, or just a warm meal. And for now, Haggert counts herself lucky to be waiting with them.