"We don't advertise ourselves as a regional hub," Deputy Mayor for Health and Opportunity Donald Schwartz testified at a City Council hearing last week. "But there are people who come to Philadelphia because they don't really have a choice, and there is such a concentration of people and services."
"If Philadelphia is unable to care for people," he warned, "it very well may ripple back to surrounding counties." That would be difficult for Philly's suburbs — and disastrous for the city itself.
"It's places like this that save me from going to prison," says Anthony, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and Next Step's house manager. General Assistance, he says, "pays for most of it."
Anthony, like many recovering addicts, suffers from mental illness. Outside of a structured environment, he tends not to take his medicine for schizophrenia — and promptly winds up in jail.
Others in recovery echo Anthony's message: You don't want us on the street. "I guess I'd be out there committing more crimes," says Sean, 27, a recovering heroin addict at Next Step. "I know it's hard on the budget. But ... it takes more money to take care of us in jail than to pay us 200 bucks."
A lot more, in fact: Pennsylvania spends an average of $42,339 per year on an inmate, versus $1,845 on General Assistance (plus a maximum $1,800 over that nine months in food stamps, and undefined costs related to medical insurance).
"Just as people in addiction pose a risk to the community," says Lamb, "[keeping] people in recovery [is] a protective factor for the community."
The conservative mantra is that government has to do more with less, and some will find it particularly galling that out-of-state addicts take advantage of Pennsylvania's relative generosity. But GA supports a private network that has, with very little money, patched the gaps in this state's safety net — and, yes, that of other states, too — created by decades of government cutbacks.
"The city and the state are getting an absolute bargain with that General Assistance $205 a month," says Robert Fairbanks, a University of Chicago sociologist who has studied Philadelphia recovery houses.
Stephanie, a recovering addict who runs Joy of Living recovery house and founded the Frankford Recovery House Coalition, agrees. "I get $50 a week [from residents]. This is the only place they can live on $50 a week. They have no other place to go."