Msgr. Francis Carbine

In March 1840, Edgar Allen Poe published an article about a “delightful little war” that took place in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Poe described the “Kensington Rail Road Riots” initiated by property owners who objected to a rail line with engines giving off sparks that could set fire to wooden houses.

With assistance from the “fair damsels of Kensington” who hurled paving stones at railroad men, the home owners won the day! Poe reported that the locals marked their victory with an “uproarious shout of triumph.”

Eighty years later, the Frankford Elevated Train was built along and above Kensington Avenue. This was the proposed route for the 1840 rail line. Today, this route is part of a stressed world.

In recent decades, “triumphs” for residents in the river ward of Kensington have been rare. However, good news is now forthcoming with construction of Covenant House, located on the 2600 block of Kensington Avenue. Dedication will be in 2011.

Covenant House, founded in New York City in 1972 to safeguard children of the streets, presently has 21 affiliate locations in 16 American cities. The goal is to have a continuum of services to meet needs of at-risk youth and start them on the road to self-sufficiency.

In Philadelphia, Covenant House has had a street outreach program since 1999; a crisis center, located in Germantown, with “open intake” since 2001; and a Rights of Passage Center for transitional living now under construction near Kensington and Lehigh Avenues.

Father Michael Duffy, O.F.M., from nearby St. Francis Inn, said that helping runaway teenagers also helps the district. He further noted that the Rights of Passage Center will help to stabilize the neighborhood, lessen the number of vacant lots and prevent the area from becoming a “perpetual slum.”

Ed Zampitella, president of Kensington Avenue’s Last Stop Clubhouse, which serves persons in recovery, has just planted 21 trees on his lawn. “We have to do everything that we can to improve this neighborhood. A new building will help,” he said.

What is now the Rights of Passage Center in Kensington had its beginnings in 1999 with gradual acquisition of dilapidated row houses to serve as a “drop in” center for youths. Construction of the new facility began in 2010 and required a careful process. Local residents were consulted, as well as the East Kensington Neighborhood Association, the Zoning Commission of Philadelphia, the city’s police department, Episcopal Hospital, business owners and the archdiocesan Office for Community Development.

Zachary Woods, development director for Covenant House, explained that without collaboration, “our efforts would be fractured.” Communications began with flyers delivered through the district inviting neighbors to several meetings.

“Initially, people were wary because they thought that we might be just another transient service; however, when they learned that we were committed to staying on Kensington Avenue, attitudes changed and trust began to grow,” he said.

These meetings garnered support needed to obtain permission from the Zoning Commission so that six row houses could become one facility – the Rights of Passage Center.

Admission to the new Center on Kensington Avenue requires prior, supervised residency – up to six months – in the Germantown Crisis Center. Here a structured environment helps young persons to stabilize their lives.

The youths are typically 18 to 21 years of age, and over 50 percent were either thrown out of their home by their mother’s new husband or youth who have “aged out” of foster care programs. Some 90 percent are from Philadelphia. Most are school drop-outs; however, educational and vocational services are provided in the Germantown Center.

The Rights of Passage program fosters independence and responsibility. Accordingly, a young person must complete a written application and expect a residency of up to 18 months.

Each resident must be employed at least 30 hours per week, and demonstrate consistency in the work place. Educational and approved specialized programs are required for employment under 40 hours. Additionally, all residents must complete three or more hours of community service each month.

Young men and women are expected to pay monthly rent – 30 percent of net pay; however, upon completion of the program, participants can receive up to 75 percent of rent deposited. Strongly encouraged is a commitment to saving and banking 20 percent of earnings.

The facility will have 10, two-bedroom apartments, each with a kitchenette. Residents will buy their food. Assisting them will be staff providing guidance in matters such as budgeting, cooking and job retention.

The staff will consist of one social worker, four or five youth advisers with experience in a residential facility and the director of the program. Appropriate college degrees are required.

Before becoming development director at Covenant House, Woods “had a fine job” at the Franklin Institute but made the transition because he felt called to “work with and for people in need.”

“Why Kensington? We wanted to be a presence in the neighborhood that needed it most,” Woods said.

Msgr. Francis A. Carbine is pastor emeritus of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bensalem.