With the winter in full swing, the city’s frigid temperatures can be a health hazard due to the risk of hypothermia. It is during months of extreme weather such as these that shelters and housing infrastructure become even more vital for a community’s homeless population. However, even in austere conditions, many individuals choose to stay out of shelters for various reasons. One reason many people stay on the streets is due to underlying mental health issues that make them nervous to be around strangers or in crowds, unfamiliar environments, or anything else relating to shelters. Additionally, most shelters are dirty, crowded, and unsafe with perceived high levels of drug use and theft, among other dangers.
Despite all of these factors, beds at shelters are in high demand, and it is a daily struggle for people to acquire a spot. For many locations, people have to arrive hours before the line officially opens, a process that makes it difficult to have or look for a job.
Some shelters are better organized, such as the LGBTQ Home for Hope in Philadelphia, which serves its 37 residents in a more stable way, providing an environment that is described more as a “college dorm” than a shelter. Residents are expected to have a job and do chores around the house, and in return are provided with a stable place to live, bedrooms with only one roommate, and professional help to get back on their feet. Because the shelter is designed specifically with LGBTQ people in mind, their programs are prepared for the unique traumas experienced by them, in addition to the challenges of homelessness and poverty. Home for Hope has an operating cost of $10,000 a month and employs seven full time staff, making it perhaps not the most scalable option for the almost 1,000 unsheltered homeless individuals in Philadelphia alone.
For the roughly 8,000 children in Philadelphia experiencing homelessness, and 2.5 million homeless children in the United States as a whole, this pandemic has been just one more brutal obstacle in their path to receive an education. While the city has a system in place to provide every child a chrome book for the duration of the school closure, there are many challenges they still face. For example, despite the efforts of many shelters to update their WiFi connections, the large number of students that are now attending online classes means that the connections are often unstable. Additionally, the communal living in shelters makes it difficult for students to find quiet work spaces while following safety guidelines.
Homeless adults are facing their own set of issues. Although the unemployment rate has improved since April (14.7%), the average unemployment rate in December 2020 stood at 6.7%, with 9.9% for Black people, 9.3% for Latino people, and 6.0% for white people. In March and April, almost 101,200 Phildelphians lost their jobs, with the majority of job losses being in the hospitality and entertainment industries. This hit lower income people the hardest, with half of those in low income households experiencing job loss due to the pandemic. In addition to the decrease in job availability, many homeless adults are tasked with overseeing their children during online school, as many shelters don’t allow parents to leave their children unattended. Where before there were options for school and low-cost childcare, closures due to the pandemic have made both options unavailable to many. Not to mention, homeless parents and caregivers are more likely to have low-wage jobs that lack the flexibility to work remotely, leaving them forced to choose between preserving their children’s education and earning money to provide for their family and find a home.
Another aspect of Philadelphia’s homelessness crisis is the three camps which sprung up over the summer this year. These camps, made up of people facing eviction and rising housing prices and others protesting systemic racism and the housing crisis, were asked to officially clear out by the city in early September. While these camps started as a form of protest, for many members they offered an increased sense of safety and access to resources, particularly to those who were blacklisted from shelters. Others might not feel comfortable in the shelter environment for many of the reasons explained earlier. Complaints of altercations between camp members and surrounding neighbors, particularly in the camp along Benjamin Parkway (which once held 150 people), led the city to attempt to clear the camps and divert its members into the shelter system (with special attention towards vulnerable populations). After a long series of negotiations surrounding the three encampments, the sites are now mostly vacant. In exchange for vacating, the city has promised camp organizers 50 houses within the next 6 months and two small-house villages by June. In the course of these discussions, city officials and camp members engaged in conversations around housing, systemic racism, and economic inequality, and ultimately reached an outcome historically significant in its success. As we continue to move through these cold months, please take a moment to find ways to help people experiencing homelessness, whether it’s donating to a shelter, participating in a food-drive, or even just a kind gesture to a stranger on the street. Here are some specific ways to help.