Story by Mary Olivia Kram
In March of 2020, a combination of Covid-19 shutdowns and zoning concerns forced the Kensington Storefront, an art hub focused on harm reduction run by Mural Arts, to close its brick and mortar location at 2774 Kensington Ave.
“It was just a creative, vibrant, welcoming space,” said Kathryn Pannepacker, a visual artist who facilitated workshops at the Storefront from 2017 until its closure. “It was full of love, welcome and dignity. No stigma, just ease and peace. You walked in off the street and it felt like a sigh of, ‘Oh wow, I can just relax.’ It was this beautiful spot for everyone.”
Located on the corner of Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street, an intersection in the epicenter of the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia, the storefront was a key resource for connecting the community with a range of social, behavioral, and health services.
As the opioid epidemic and a housing insecurity crisis continue to rage in Kensington, artists like Pannepacker have found ways to use their crafts to promote community-based harm reduction. Though she had been based in the Storefront, running the popular “Tuesday Tea and Textiles” workshop with her collaborator Lisa Kelley since 2017, the two have since found ways to bring their focus on care and harm reduction back out into the community.
Pannepacker, who has painted murals all around the city, had a moment early on in her career where she realized her true passion is helping people. Ever since, she’s been taking gigs and piecing together a career built around art and community. To her, creating a sense of community is a crucial, but overlooked, part of rehabilitation.
Kelley, a mixed media artist, first connected with Pannepacker over Facebook. At the time, Pannepacker was facilitating art workshops with people struggling with addiction at the Kirkbride Center, a comprehensive behavioral health center in West Philadelphia.
“I thought to myself ‘Oh my gosh, I want to do that’,” Kelley said. “So, I just messaged her and said, ‘Hey can I come help you at your workshop?’”
From there, a vibrant partnership was formed. Kelley and Pannepacker ran “Tuesday Tea and Textiles,” from 2017 until the Storefront closed. During “Tuesday Tea and Textiles,” people in active addiction and unsheltered people were welcomed to find refuge and food in the space.
“I’m really all about art as harm reduction, but I like to add to it: art as wellness support,” Pannepacker said. “I really see the studios that we’ve been creating as places of refuge and support.”
The two artists offered snacks and warm beverages along with simple accessible crafts, creating a warm and welcoming environment, they hoped. Participants had access to yarns, fabrics and beads for more intricate art along with simple crafts like coloring. Along with crafts, workshop participants could find access to medical care.
“We also offered help,” Kelley said. “The Department of Behavioral Health was there. We had nurses there on Tuesdays with wound care. We guided people to resources and treatment if that’s what they asked for.”
The doors were open to anyone, those who were struggling or anyone in the community who simply wanted to join.
“I see people who I’m not sure that we would have reached if it weren’t for the art that we’re doing,” Kelley said. “It is not that we’re doing amazing award-winning pieces. It’s just easily accessible.”
Now without a permanent home to hold their program, Kelley and Pannepacker have taken to pop-up workshops.
“We’ve been outside on the streets around Monmouth Street,” Kelley said. “That gets us to a lot of people that we wouldn’t normally have worked with. We get so many people coming up and curious about what we’re doing.”
Mural Arts recently funded the duo to offer a 10-week pilot program at Stop the Risk, a pop-up harm reduction community center located in an empty lot along Kensington Avenue, where they will offer workshops and services similar to the ones they were doing at the Kensington Storefront. Until the Mural Arts funding kicks in, Pannepacker will keep the spirit of “Tuesday Tea and Textiles” alive by setting up her art station guerilla-style every Tuesday in front of Stop the Risk.
Pannepacker has also launched a new art project she facilitates on the street called “The Listening Loom.”
“I set up two stools and my loom and just weave,” Pannepacker said. “If anyone wants to sit next to me just to watch or talk, I found especially during Covid, we’ve all been so isolated making that kind of connection is a good thing.”
Working with vulnerable populations hasn’t always been easy for Kelley and Pannepacker. Sometimes, they see the people they work with move on to the next step in their rehabilitation. Other times, they never see the person again. They say that not enough people are getting the help they need from city officials.
“It’s been four years of a tangled mess of watching a broken system and doing our best to support and see people and believe in them,” Pannepacker said.
According to data released by the City, Philadelphia saw 1,214 overdose-related deaths in 2020; 86% of those deaths involved drugs under the opioid drug class, including substances like heroin, oxycodone and fentanyl.
In December of 2020, the CDC confirmed a national uptick in opioid-related deaths correlated in part with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health reported an increase in EMS responses for overdose-related problems during stay-at-home orders.
Social isolation can be very dangerous for someone recovering from addiction, according to Jotie Mondair, a clinical therapist who is trained in art therapy.
“If you think about the experience of substance use and the experience of individuals in the Kensington area that are really populated by substance use, it’s a really isolating experience for them,” she said.
Housing insecurity is often coincident with the opioid epidemic. The City hosts more than 5,700 unhoused individuals, many of whom reside in encampments situated along Kensington Avenue.
“We’ve witnessed a lot of folks getting into a program, only being given a few weeks of treatment and then being let back out to the streets of Kensington without a plan of action,” Pannepacker said. “Often, we saw this revolving door of despair.”
Pannepacker hopes to stop that door from revolving by maintaining interpersonal connections.
“One thing that we want and think is so critically needed and done our best to plug is creating that sense of belonging and structure,” said Pannepacker. “I know when I meet people, I’m always carrying a self addressed stamped envelope to give to folks that are getting into a detox program just so that there’s like this pen pal kind of relationship of support.”
Mondair, who has a history working with people struggling with addiction in Philadelphia, has seen the powerful impact that forging these kinds of connections can have.
“A lot of the time they’re not getting a lot of support,” Mondair said. “Maybe their families aren’t involved in some way, or maybe they’ve lost relationships along the way. So to be able to work collaboratively can also be really empowering for them. To have somebody that’s there that’s not really judging them for their drawing ability or their substance use. That can be really supportive of what they’re going through.”
For Kelley, who was born and raised in Kensington, the work that she does hits closer to home. Her foster son struggles with addiction.
“It feels like I’m going home and giving something to the space where I grew up,” she said. “It’s familiar to me.”
Pannepacker continues to work with partners like Prevention Point, a nonprofit public health organization providing harm reduction services in Philadelphia, as well as The Last Stop, a recovery clubhouse where Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held. Both are located in Kensington.
Kelley and Pannepacker aren’t sure exactly what will come after their 10-week pilot at Stop the Risk.
“A space is what would be ideal, but until that happens—or if that ever happens again—we will be out there doing workshops however we can,” Kelley said.
For now, it appears that their work will mirror what Pannepacker’s career has been since she discovered her calling—piecing together gig after gig to keep the momentum of the community alive.
“We’re so determined to keep going,” Pannepacker said.
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