SINCE THE EARLY 1980S, in one of Philadelphia’s poorest and most heavily blighted zones, hundreds of row homes have been transformed into unregulated, unlicensed recovery houses. Recovery houses have no official licensure or regulatory board in Pennsylvania, and they are run almost entirely by non-professional recovering addicts. With very few exceptions, the houses operate without formal state or city funding. Using the resources of the impoverished addicts themselves – which at times have included cash assistance and food stamps – recovery houses generate sustainable economies that combine food and shelter with a street-level brand of 12-step/self-help recovery. By way of the Kensington Recovery House movement, this paper explores, ethnographically and theoretically, the relationship between the restructuring of an urban and state-level social welfare system, on the one hand, and informal street-level urban poverty survival strategies, on the other. In the process, Professor Fairbanks seeks to understand how this nexus differentially distributes life opportunities for poor and predominantly African American drug users; and how small-scale state building projects – formal and informal – entail a making and remaking of race, rights, and citizenship in accordance with the regulatory imperatives of the welfare state and the political economy of postindustrial Philadelphia.
Excerpt: "Contemporary paupers, or destitute addicts, are left to churn in regulatory eddies of a denuded welfare system and its adjunct sphere of self-help entrepreneurialism. To say that recovery houses are 'unmomitored' and 'unregulated' is simply untenable. With no effective means of redress and a highly contingent state of tenure, the recovery house actors become trapped within a series of regulatory forces that operate in concert with the formal treatment sector and the informal recovery house."
ROBERT FAIRBANKS II is Visiting Professor of Sociology, Bryn Mawr College and a Lecturer and Fellow in Urban Studies at Penn. Until 2013, he was an Assistant Professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. He is the author of How It Works: Recovering Citizens in Post-Welfare Philadelphia (2009), an ethnography of the Kensington Recovery House movement.