After battling homelessness and drug addiction for about six years, Amber Finnegan, a native of Northeast Philadelphia, got clean. Only then did she get clarity on how quickly her life veered off track.
“It’s not right what drugs make you do. The drug keeps you out there, it’s just sad,” said Finnegan, who struggled with addictions to heroin and fentanyl. “But it’s harder to stay clean than it is to get drugs.”
Drug abuse and housing insecurity are not topics that are often discussed in the context of Northeast Philadelphia neighborhoods like Bustleton or Fox Chase. And when these issues do surface, they often reveal underlying stigmas that exist, whether it’s opposition to supervised injection sites or Facebook chatter over the litter that the unsheltered population allegedly creates. As a result, many family members and friends of those who are addicted to drugs and living on the streets feel like they have nowhere to turn to for help.
Finnegan, now on the other side of her battles with homelessness and drug addiction, is helping to grow support services through Socks for the Streets, a nonprofit based in Northeast Philadelphia that seeks to aid people who’ve ended up in situations like the one she experienced for years.
Socks for the Streets is personal on several levels for Finnegan, not only because of the issues they tackle. Finnegan is the primary inspiration behind the group.
“Living in the Northeast, I felt as if there weren’t really any outreach programs for me to contact. I became addicted to saving my daughter’s life,” said Jennifer Malazita, Finnegan’s mother, one of the people behind Socks for the Streets. “A lot of the programs that I did find for families who are dealing with drug abuse were only located in Kensington.”
Launched in 2019, Socks for the Streets started off with sock drives. They now collect all types of things year round—including: clothing, shoes, food, and hygiene products—which they distribute to people who lack shelter and struggle with addiction.
Understanding the limited services that exist in the Northeast was an emotional journey for Malazita, who had to drive to Kensington in order to find groups for her daughter to talk to. “I would drive around to all of these different programs, and I would take my son Declan with me, who was just a toddler at the time. He has grown up seeing all of the volunteer work and programs I was involving myself with to help my daughter. One day when we were driving around volunteering for something, Declan saw a homeless person with a sign asking for socks,” Malazita said.
It was Finnegan’s 13- year-old brother who first asked his mother if they could start their own program to help unsheltered people who need the basic necessities, like socks. In fact, Declan Cassidy is the principal founder of the nonprofit and he continues to be a driving force behind the donations-based group. He attends Baldi Middle School, and balances his school work with running his nonprofit. “My entire school collects socks for our sock drive,” Cassidy said.
Today, Socks for the Streets has a growing reputation not only in the Northeast but citywide, although it remains primarily focused on the community where Cassidy and Finnegan grew up. There, they assist the homeless, drug abuse victims, and their families.
“The first year we collected 1,000 socks. The following year we collected around 9,000. The third year we collected over 20,000. This year we’re up to 19,000 so far,” Malazita explained.
“We do sock drives once a year. We also do outreach. We get people into treatment, if they want treatment. We’ll transport them to go get help. We do stuff with the veterans to try and help homeless veterans. We provide meals, we prepare all the food, and we bring clothes once a week. Socks, hygiene products, whatever we can get donated. We are there as support for families who are struggling, we offer advice,” Malazita explained.
Socks for the Streets even make snack bags that they drive around and give out to unsheltered people they see on the streets.
“It’s a good way to approach people, to build a relationship with you, build trust, and get them to eventually open up to you,” Malazita said.
Many residents in the Northeast are also seeing the drug abuse and homelessness issues within their own neighborhoods. Dan Toy, who helps run the neighborhood watch Facebook group known as Mo-Town Watch, which focuses on the Northeast, has personally witnessed the drug problem in the area while being a leader of his community.
“A lot of the homeless drug addicts are being kicked out of Kensington by police, and making their way up here,” Toy explained. He says that he has responded to calls from concerned citizens in the Northeast who have found drug addicts passed out in cars, and this is nothing new. “I’ve seen the drug problem become bad up here in about the last three years or so.”
When Amber Finnegan was living on the streets herself, her mother found it nearly impossible for her to reach her by herself. “I could not reach her, but someone else could, a stranger. So I kind of feel like what we’re doing is maybe we can be that for another parent,” Malazita explained.
“We can be that stranger,” Declan Cassidy added. “When they know that they need help, we can give it to them,” Cassidy stated.
Socks for the Streets has been helping the homeless now for three years. They provide all types of help to the community, but they also need help themselves, in order to continue helping others.
“We’re small, we’re not big, we are a very small nonprofit but we do a lot. Everything is based on donations. We have no grants, nothing like that. We would love to have grants, but again this is a work in progress. Just a few friends who came together to help push Declan’s dream,” Malazita said.
If you’d like to help Socks for the Streets, you can contact them by reaching out to Jennifer Malazita at (215)-939-2569 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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