Homelessness is an intractable and wicked urban problem.
You’ll see it in Philadelphia, just as you’ll see it in Detroit and Los Angeles and D.C. That omnipresence can make it easy to perceive homelessness as a thing that just exists — a problem cities have that they all treat the same way.
But the way the city of Philadelphia approaches homelessness is different than the way it’s approached in Detroit and Los Angeles and D.C. The root commonality in fighting homelessness across U.S. cities is that they all get funding from HUD. It’s the way those funds are deployed that differs from city to city.
Here’s a glimpse at homelessness in Philadelphia, and how it’s being approached.
1. Homelessness rates are comparatively low, considering the city’s level of poverty.
First, let’s put things into perspective. Of 1.6 million people living in the city of Philadelphia, 400,000 were found to be living below the poverty line in 2015. Compare that to the city of Los Angeles where, out of 3.9 million people living in that city, approximately 873,600 are living in poverty.
Yet in Los Angeles, 21,338 homeless individuals were counted as not having shelter earlier this month. Philadelphia’s 2016 Point in Time count registered 705 unsheltered homeless individuals inside the city, according to Office of Supportive Housing Director Liz Hersh.
2. Still, there are not enough beds for the homeless in Philadelphia.
“We don’t have enough,” said Misty Sparks, director of entry-level programs at nonprofit Bethesda Project. “I don’t think anyone should ever have to sleep outside, but if every homeless individual wanted to come into shelter on a given night, we would not have enough beds.”
Sparks said the city would be about 500 beds short.
“I’m a firm believer that we always have 700 to probably 1,500 homeless in and outside of the city. In the winter the homeless count is much lower. In the summer it’s much higher.”
The homeless do get turned away when facilities are full — even youth.
3. Youth homelessness is a major problem, especially among LGBTQ teens.
During her testimony to City Council on youth homelessness, Hersh said up to 42 youth were found to be without shelter at the time of the 2016 PIT. That does not include youth in housing (or in hiding).
“In emergency and transitional housing programs the count identified 257 unaccompanied youth households under the age of 24, 20 under the age of 18 and 291 parenting youth households,” she said “Representing a total of 703 people at that moment in time.”
Hersh said there are currently a total of 388 beds for youth in the city — and that Philadelphia Covenant House (PCH) turned away 546 youth last year.
“We do not have enough services to meet the need,” PCH Executive Director John Ducoff told Al Jazeera earlier this year. “We’re turning kids away every day.”
In the past four years, the number of high school students in Philadelphia who have experienced homelessness has increased 73 percent. That means every one out of 20 high schoolers in Philly has experienced homelessness.
The odds are not good for kids in foster care. According to Department of Human Services‘ Children and Youth Division Deputy Commissioner Gary Williams, approximately 50 percent of foster care youth will become homeless once they age out of the system.
The odds are even worse for LGBTQ youth.
According to Office of LGBT Affairs Director Nellie Fitzpatrick, 42 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Though, she said, that percentage is likely to actually be over half.
But Hersh said OSH has a solution — all the department needs is $3.5 million from City Council to get to work.
4. Here’s who’s working on homelessness.
The majority of the work is done by nonprofits, though the city in many ways foots the bill. Both OSH and the Department of Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) deploy services through its network of provider agencies.
(Hersh has said that most of OSH’s work is done through its nonprofit providers).
Homeless outreach workers, for example, are not city employees. Rather, the outreach contract is issued by DBHIDS to Project HOME, which oversees their own outreach team plus a number of other outreach teams comprised of staff from Horizon House, Self Inc. and the Mental Health Association.
It’s a cross-sector front with intertwining city agencies and nonprofits, which is great — but can lead to some confusion and communication breakdown.
5. Data on homelessness isn’t shared well (yet).
Outreach data lives with DBHIDS and, believe it or not, isn’t exactly accessible to other agencies and nonprofits fighting homelessness. That can cause some confusion for, say, OSH, which oversees housing facilities.
All municipalities are mandated by HUD to implement a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) in order to make data-informed decisions around programming and services. That system is required to live with OSH.
“We’re not quite there yet,” Hersh said earlier this month. “The city is a little behind. The city had one false start with the HMIS system.”
But Hersh said a new provider will have an HMIS system up and running this week.
Once that system is installed and city staffers are trained in using it, OSH will be able to provide dashboards and reports that will be shared across agencies. It will be especially useful for the new homeless outreach program, announced earlier this month by Mayor Jim Kenney (along with Hersh and DBHIDS Commissioner Dr. Arthur Evans) — teams of outreach workers will be deployed at morning rush hour, lunch and evening rush hour to places where homeless individuals are most prevalent.
6. Focusing outreach on Center City could push chronically homeless individuals to the city’s margins.
The outreach program could push chronically homeless individuals who do not want services into neighborhoods like Germantown, where housing nonprofits like Dignity Housing don’t receive the same level of attention and support as Center City organizations — further marginalizing and displacing the marginalized and displaced.
It’s why the city’s new homeless outreach approach was designed with the idea of building relationships with homeless individuals, not “fixing” them. Some people just straight up refuse housing and services.
Still, there are some like Sparks who believe the new outreach program is a push to clear Center City of its homeless population before the Democratic National Convention in July. If the city wants to clear downtown of as many homeless individuals as possible before the DNC, Sparks said, officials should just be transparent with their intentions.
It’s just convenient timing, she said.
“We need to not deny that we have this group of really hardcore, long-term [homeless] people who we just haven’t found the right solution for,” she said.
7. No, veteran homelessness has not ended.
Not even close, despite the announcement made by former Mayor Nutter at the end of his last term. Nutter’s administration, rationalized the announcement by saying the number of homeless veterans was “functionally” zero — there were still 15 unsheltered homeless veterans on the street who had refused services.
Sparks recalls reading the news while working in one of Bethesda Project’s safe havens.
“I had two veterans in my program on the day they made that announcement,” Sparks said. “They were both clearly still very homeless.”
Sparks said the city created a list of homeless veterans — defining what “zero” is — then systematically worked to bring that list to zero.
It was a grandiose claim. Homelessness will never end.
“Even if we got to zero today, tomorrow there would be new homeless people,” Sparks said. “We can hope to scale back shelters, but homelessness will always exist.”