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Suburban Station merchants say homeless services hub is valued, but doesn’t ‘belong down here’

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — After being released from prison and falling on hard times, Joseph Arrison felt he had nowhere left to go.

“I was discharged from state prison and it was taking me awhile to get my money turned on,” he recalled. “I needed homeless services because I was temporarily homeless.”

He turned to the Hub of Hope for help.

“It feels like the city really helps out people in need,” he added. “It really helped me out in my situation.”

Hub of Hope has provided resources for homeless people like Arrison in Suburban Station since 2012.

“It was just a winter storefront where we were able to engage men and women in the train station, and connect them to services, shelter, housing,” explained Sister Mary Scullion, director of the nonprofit Project HOME, which runs the Hub.

The Hub’s services were in such high demand, Scullion said they had to find a new place to work out of.

“In the past year, in partnership with the city of Philadelphia and with SEPTA, we opened a year-round Hub of Hope that is much larger than a storefront, so that we could provide medical, social services, showers, and the ability for people to wash and dry their clothes, and get other kinds of needed services,” said Scullion.

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The renovated 11,000-square-foot walk-in facility, located in the long stretch of the Suburban Station concourse, helps hundreds of people every day.

“The Hub of Hope provides opportunities for folks that are looking for hope,” said SEPTA Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel. He believes the Hub brings much-needed resources directly to some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, because it is located in an area they’re known to congregate.

“The only way that we can have a long-term effect on helping people who are addicted, mentally ill, or poor, is exposing them to social services,” Nestel said. “You bring social services to the people that need it, and the people that need it are in Suburban Station.”

Business owners feel stifled

But not everyone along the concourse is grateful with the expansion of the Hub.

For the last 36 years, Butch Foley has made a living selling floral bouquets at his shop, The Philadelphia Flower Market, nestled in the heart of Suburban Station.

“I can’t think of anybody who doesn’t like flowers. It’s not even like a job when I come in here,” he enthused. “We have so many customers who are like family.”

But over the last year, Foley and other vendors in the station say they’ve seen a change for the worse. He blames the decline on some people who seek support from the Hub.

“We have more drug dealers, derelicts. What they’re doing is they’re taking advantage of the homeless down here,” he asserted.

When the Hub expanded permanently underground, Foley claims it opened the door for delinquents to loiter. “When this was just homeless, it was fine.”

Last year, Foley was attacked at his shop by a drug user, who rampaged through his store.

“He stabbed me,” Foley paused, grasping his ribs. “He stabbed me right under my rib cage.”

Foley approves of the Hub and its mission, but he doesn’t think it should reside in Suburban Station.

He submitted several complaints regarding the drug use, harassment and lewd acts he has witnessed outside his shop, but he said they have fallen on deaf ears.

“I have never seen one person from the city down here,” he noted. “I’ve asked them to come down here. They don’t return my phone calls or anybody else who works down here’s phone calls.

“I mean, it’s incredible what’s going on down here, and the city is just totally blind to it — or they just want to ignore it.”

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He’s seen the drugs people take — “potpourri,” a synthetic marijuana, “ground up and sprinkled with fentanyl” — which turns them into “zombies.”

Foley said some drug users pretend to be homeless, taking refuge in the Hub and causing trouble at the station — and driving away a lot of his business.

“I have so many customers afraid to come down here,” he admitted.  

A couple years ago, Monica Hadley jumped at the chance to join vendors like Foley in the station and open her own salon.

Hadley has developed a long list of clients over the last 30 years through her business, D.Tails & D.Signs.

“I always wanted to be” in Suburban Station, she said, “because I saw so much potential here. I thought it was a beautiful space.”

But she said her dream location has turned into a nightmare.

“I never in a million years would have imagined the horror that I would have came into,” she said. “I’ve lost, I’d say, 90 percent of my personal business.”

She had to pick up a second job in retail to help make ends meet.

Like Foley, Hadley believes the overall feeling of seediness in the station coincides with the expansion of the Hub, crippling numerous businesses.

“I don’t think the Hub is a bad thing,” she added. “It’s an excellent thing, but it does not belong down here.”

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Kris Kim, owner of Happy Jewelers, nodded her head in agreement while listening to Hadley.

“We can’t even open sometimes because [drug users] are all around our store,” she noted. “They’re smoking, they’re laying around. I see urine all over the place, if no one is cleaning. And it’s very hard for us to conduct business.”

Kim said business has dropped by 30 or 40 percent. “We might not be in business for a while.”

Since the city-mandated closure of the Kensington encampments last winter, forcing out homeless people addicted to opioids, Kim and Hadley say the concourse has only gotten worse.

“They terrorize our customers,” Hadley continued. “They’re getting high. You put … drugs and alcohol together, and what do you think you’re going to get? It is a recipe for disaster.”

She also claims pollution from people smoking certain drugs has given her respiratory problems, and Kim said her husband is having a hard time dealing with the smoke infiltrating their store.

“His eye was bloodshot,” said Kim. “His vessel popped because we cannot take the smoking.”

“They can do whatever they want,” Hadley added, “and they know there are no repercussions.”

City tackles issue ‘head-on’

The women said they have contacted the city and SEPTA. When Hadley reached out to Mayor Jim Kenney and other city officials, she said they’ve been less than hospitable. “They didn’t even let me in to see [Kenney], so I spoke to one of his representatives. She pretty much told me that they’re not going to do anything.”

According to the city and SEPTA, extended investigations do not show the problems owners are complaining about. They are, however, working to make the area more welcoming for all who pass through.

Scullion said investigations and arrests have shown the people committing crimes are not affiliated with her organization.

SEPTA police say they’re also tackling the drug use head-on, but they agree that the Hub is not the problem.

“Suburban Station is a challenging arena for us and for the business people, for the riders,” said Nestel. “It’s a public area. We’re limited in what we can do about people who are congregating in a public area if they are doing it peacefully.”

Nestel noted SEPTA police have used undercover agents to bust drug dealers, and they’ve made three arrests so far this year.

Police are also reaching out to people in the concourse on an individual level. With a unified approach, Nestel hopes to make a positive impact in the long run.

“Our mental health specialist is now addressing those kind of issues before someone gets injured or a problem kicks off,” he added. “We’re having great success in the last couple of weeks that we implemented this.”

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Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director of Health and Human Services, said the Hub will stay put at Suburban, but they have offered resources to help businesses and workers.

“Our Commerce Department reached out directly and has met with business owners a number of times to understand their concerns,” she said.

Gladstein’s department is also working toward solutions to ease the Hub’s load while continuing to invest money and resources into Suburban.

“In raising funds for the Hub of Hope, we actually raised money for other sites in Center City, to add showers and laundry facilities,” she said. “We’ve been increasing the number of people who want to help folks get meals to bring them from outdoors to inside in some of these sites, and we’ll continue to work on more daytime engagement.”

Scullion insisted they have and will continue to make sure the Hub draws in only the people it intends to serve.

An increase in police and surveillance video may help “create a safe, hospitable place for everyone in the train station,” she added, “because we do share their concerns.”

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