North Central: Addicts and Activists Provide an Oasis on Norris Street

The fountain behind Norris Street was built by the volunteers and recovering addicts.

What can an 80-year-old nun, a recovering drug addict, a recent college graduate and a handful of volunteers accomplish? The short answer is a lot.

Gary Robbins is a recovering drug addict from Delaware. He found his way to New Jerusalem Laura over ten years ago after he lost the ability to feed himself due to chronic drug abuse. Today he serves as a staff member at this unique drug treatment facility in North Philadelphia.

Justin Williams is a baby-faced recent college graduate from Chicago who sticks out like a sore thumb among the rougher looking crowd at New Jerusalem. But after watching him interact with the group for a few minutes, his place at the drug recovery house on 2011 Norris St. becomes more apparent.

Sister Margaret McKenna shows off her award-winning vegetable garden.

And then there’s Sister Margaret McKenna.

A child of the non-violence movement, she found her way in and out of prison during the ‘70s for various acts of civil disobedience, her longest stint lasting four months.

And, by the way, she holds a doctorate degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Williams, Robbins and McKenna are the only three employees at New Jerusalem Laura and two of them are working for free. Williams handles most of the paper work and lives with amongst the recovering addicts. Robbins serves as a staff member and also serves as an example of what the new faces at New Jerusalem are striving to accomplish. McKenna is the executive director and founder of New Jerusalem Laura.

In 1989, McKenna had a mission, to wander into a “modern day desert” and provide help to some of the poorest and neediest people in the country. Only after she had arrived in North Central Philadelphia did she realize that her real mission would be helping people battle addiction.

For over 20-years now, New Jerusalem Laura has provided food, shelter, support and recovery to people of all different backgrounds. It’s a whole lot different from traditional symptomatic treatment of drug addiction in a number of ways, perhaps most glaringly however is the fact that it operates completely without funding from the city, state or federal governments.

“We are an economical way of doing what the city needs to do,” McKenna said. “We provide for the poorest people.”

Many scoff at the idea of a drug recovery house run by a radical nun that features former addicts as house managers, but the program has seen a tremendous amount of success in its time.

Take Gary Robbins for instance. He had been in a traditional medical treatment facility a few months before his time at New Jerusalem Laura.

“I did a 28 day program through the state. On the 28th day they released me and on the 28th day I picked up and used a drug and the cycle began again.”

Robbins later found out that his four weeks at that medical drug treatment facility cost approximately $14,000. In contrast, a month’s rent at New Jerusalem Laura costs $175.

According to the National Institution on Drug Abuse, medications are an important element for treatment of drug abuse. New Jerusalem Laura does not provide medications, but many of the residents had tried and failed the medical model already. However, The NIDA also notes on their website that “Residential treatment programs can be very effective, especially for those with more severe problems.” So for many who did not succeed in the medical model, New Jerusalem Laura is their only hope of ever getting better.

The fountain behind the house was built by the volunteers and recovering addicts at New Jerusalem Laura.

So what’s so different about New Jerusalem Laura? Well for starters, they don’t just let anyone in.

“We are a self-help program,” McKenna said emphatically. “You have to really want to get better.”

In order to get into the program, one must first go through a week of living at the community. During this week, the guest is not required to sit in on all the meetings or even lift a finger to help out around the house. Their only expectation is to remain clean.

Less than 50 percent of people make it through their first week.

After the initial week, the guest is required to go through an extensive interview process, which could last for hours. The guest must be voted into the program by the other residents and once they are voted in, the “blackout” process begins.

McKenna feels that the blackout process is incredibly pivotal to recovery. “We are a group centered around spirituality,” she remarked.

During the 60-day blackout period, the residents of New Jerusalem are not allowed to have any contact outside of the group. They must turn in their cell phones, hand over their cigarettes and cut all ties with their family and friends for the next two months.

Less than 50 percent of the residents who survived the first week make it the whole 60 days.

According to staff member Gary Robbins, in order to make it at New Jerusalem Laura you need “open-mindedness, willingness and the spirit to recover”

You have to want to get better.

When someone finally becomes accepted into the community, the healing and hard-work begins.

The days typically start around 7 a.m. when McKenna leads the group in Bible study. They don’t always use the Bible however, sometimes the works of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Gandhi can serve as a substitute. After that there are a whole lot more meetings, programs all throughout the city and a lot of conflict that comes from recovering addicts living together under one roof.

Sister Margaret McKenna likes to give homework assignments to the residents of New Jerusalem Laura occasionally. Currently the residents are each required to research the drug they use and how the drug impacts the particular region where it originates from.

Conflict between the house guests arises often, but the sense of community built over time usually pays dividends later on.

McKenna remembered a time when she was alone in the trailer that she lives in behind New Jerusalem when a man had entered. The man had made her feel a bit uncomfortable, so when he went outside for a moment she called over to Peter House, another recovery house down the street where the male residents of New Jerusalem Laura live, and asked if “maybe one or two people could come over.”

Less than a minute later McKenna looked out her window and saw over two dozen of her residents marching to her door.

Maybe that’s why when asked if she ever felt scared living in North Central she responded without any hesitation.

“To be honest—no, not at all.”

McKenna admits that she wasn’t always very popular with her neighbors. She was greeted with bricks through her window and anti-recovery house leaflets passed out by community leaders after she and other volunteers rebuilt the abandoned home at the intersection of 20th and Norris Streets.

On every Friday the residents of New Jerusalem Laura hand out food to the community. This food was donated to them by Philabundance along with food they grow in a giant vegetable garden in their backyard. From yogurt to fresh cabbage and from bread to broccoli, nobody leaves empty-handed.

New Jerusalem Laura partners with various social organizations throughout the city: City Harvest, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, another community based recovery program called One Day at a Time and Philabundance just to name a few. However, this group receives no governmental funding and relies solely on donations and the small fee they charge to their residents.

They have been forced to become a bit more resourceful over time as funds have run scarce. Self-sufficiency is a large part of what New Jerusalem preaches and they certainly practice it. They feed themselves and the community with their vegetable garden.  They pool their food stamps and even use their garden as a way to make biodiesel fuel.

The van used to transport their residents to and from meetings all over the city is run completely on biodiesel fuel—the fuel they make from their garden. They hope to eventually sell some of their biodiesel fuel to the community as a means of income.

Gary Robbins and other volunteers prepare to give away food to the community.

New Jerusalem Laura is also in the process of transforming an abandoned house on North 21st Street into a thrift store and coffee shop. The third floor of the building will be used to house women in the drug recovery program.

“We live well with very little,” McKenna said. “The bucks would go much farther here than they do in the present set up.”

McKenna was forced to come out of retirement last year when it came to light that her chosen replacement was stealing what little money was coming into New Jerusalem. She’s still looking for her eventual successor.

“I can’t do this forever you know,” she said.

So why does she still do it?

“The greatest joy that you can have is to observe the people you love thriving and growing,” McKenna said with a wide smile.

Almost a dozen “graduates” from New Jerusalem showed up on one Friday to help give out food to the community. Even though these graduates have moved on with their lives after New Jerusalem they still come back often. Most of them are working, married and the happiest they have ever been.

McKenna doesn’t keep records on how successful her program is. Most of her evidence to measure the success of her program is anecdotal. But that doesn’t stop her from continuing her mission.

“I am forever grateful to Sister Margaret,” Robbins said as he walked through the vegetable garden. “I call this place my own little piece of heaven.”


  1. The Harsh Reality of Drug Addiction richardmclaughlin007 — January 18, 2009 — after 11 months of sobriety from drug addiction, in 7 short days this man hits the depths of despair and insanity.

    This video was shot in Vancouvers downtown eastside by the narrator it is quite extreme, It shows how common place and and readily available drugs are and how people can succomb to a extreme physical reaction from lack of sleep, nutrition and dehydration. This video was made for many different reasons, one being educational the other as mentioned earlier it’s common place here in Vancouver, in any other city or town in North America this man would have recieved immediate medical attention but here in Vancouver both the police and ambulance just drive by. If you do not belive me come on down and see our little human circus slash “HARM REDUCTION EXPERIMENT”
    This man was spotted two hours later sleeping on a concrete curb as his pillow.
    Both the narrator and producer of this video have had spent many years struggling with addiction and have spent hard time in Vancouvers “NOTORIOUS” downtown eastside.
    Today they have escaped and are clean and sober and now dedicate there lives to those who still suffer from “THE HARSH REALITY OF ADDICTION”

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