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Columns Intersectional Equity

Week 24: Homelessness in Philadelphia: How We Got Here

With the holidays coming up and the temperatures dropping, many of us are looking forward to spending the next few weeks inside with family and food. However, this week we want to focus on a group of people who might not be able to have that experience. During the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness has skyrocketed in Philadelphia, leaving many people on the streets to form new camps and fill up already overcrowded shelters. As winter weather approaches, there is one overarching question: How did we get here?

With the holidays coming up and the temperatures dropping, many of us are looking forward to spending the next few weeks inside with family and food. However, this week we want to focus on a group of people who might not be able to have that experience. During the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness has skyrocketed in Philadelphia, leaving many people on the streets to form new camps and fill up already overcrowded shelters. As winter weather approaches, there is one overarching question: How did we get here?

Homelessness in Philadelphia was a problem well before the pandemic. With the convergence of an affordable housing crisis and opioid epidemic, the city’s homeless population was left without access to safe housing and the ability to get back on their feet. In Philadelphia, America’s 4th most segregated city, policies like redlining and property deeds have set the stage for systemic housing inequalities.

In the early 1900s, as many Black southerners facing segregation and racial violence fled north, they unfortunately found similar attitudes in the cities they moved into. Philadelphia was no exception. Developers and landlords, in order to maintain the values of their properties, began including discriminatory language in their deeds and leases, pushing non-white people into specific neighborhoods. These issues were exacerbated by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1933, after President Roosevelt’s New Deal was instated with the goal of revitalizing the housing economy after the great depression. The HOLC, which helped refinance mortgages, drew lines around which neighborhoods were deemed “good enough” for federal finances. Implementation of these racially motivated maps, otherwise known as redlining, blocked off neighborhoods, primarily those with significant non-white populations, from mortgage opportunities. The FHA, which insured loans and worked with property developers to help stimulate growth, also refused to insure loans to non-white people in white designated neighborhoods. They also implemented unofficial policies creating a “white line” in the suburbs by providing funding for developments only to those who promised not to sell to African Americans. Additionally, the FHA instructed the building and placement of physical barriers such as railroads between segregated neighborhoods so as to insure “the prevention of the infiltration of … lower class occupancy and inharmonious racial groups.” Only after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 did discrimination in the sale and rental of housing, mortgages, and housing assistance become illegal. The implications of the discriminatory practices by the HOLC and FHA are broad as housing impacts access to education, jobs, social services, and food. 

In addition to a lack of affordable housing, there is another major root of homelessness. Philadelphia is the epicenter of the nation’s opioid epidemic, with more than 1,000 fatal drug overdoses in 2018, the highest overdose rate of the country’s 10 biggest cities. In February, before the pandemic, there were an estimated 5,700 homeless people, with about 1,000 living in the streets. People living on the streets were concentrated into two major neighborhoods: Kensington (where the major drug market is) and Center City (where they can beg, access social services, and have an increased sense of safety due to police patrolling). Since 2015, when the 3rd wave of the opioid epidemic hit the city, the amount of people sleeping on the streets of Center City increased 57% to about 500 people per night, with the number of panhandlers increasing 116%. Until early last year there was not a single day in which an overdose didn’t bring the Kensington – Center City rail line to a standstill. According to the chief of SEPTA Transit police, “In 2018, transit police delivered 390 doses of Narcan to overdosing people,” which averages out to over one overdose for each day of the year. Among the homeless population in Philadelphia, overdose was the main cause of death in 2018 (59%).

With the isolation, grief, frustration, and financial stress that has fallen upon many as a result of the pandemic, many addicts have relapsed in order to cope. Although there are not official numbers yet about opioid usage in the pandemic, experts at the FDA and AMA are seeing trends of increasing usage, overdoses, and relapses. A test of 500,000 lab urine samples from mid-March through May found a 32% increase of non-prescribed fentanyl, 20% increase of meth, and 10% increase for cocaine. In Philadelphia this June , the number of fatal overdoses remained about the same, but the demographics shifted — from majority white to majority black.

 All of these factors are important when considering the affordable housing crisis in Philadelphia. From 2000 to 2014, the amount of low-cost housing available in lower income gentrified neighborhoods decreased at 5 times the rate of non gentrified neighborhoods. This is problematic, especially as in 2016, the city’s average income was not rising. Gentrification is defined for these purposes as an influx of college educated students and homes above the median city value in a neighborhood. This influx drives a rise in housing prices, which pushes many low income residents, particularly those of color, out of their homes and into neighborhoods with poorer conditions and fewer affordable housing options. Although studies have found that the city is overall becoming less white, the sizes of white majority areas are increasing. Even for those who are able to find other homes, the quality of their living space is often lesser, with 121,000 families in Philadelphia living in homes deemed “inadequate” by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. As of February (before the pandemic put additional strain on household finance), there were more than 59,000 names on the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s waiting list for affordable housing.

Now, with the devastating impacts of the pandemic on the economy, many people have lost their sources of income. Although Philadelphia has implemented measures to help prevent evictions and utility shutoffs, there are still many people being put out of their homes. This, like many other aspects of the pandemic, has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. 48% of Black adults and 44% of Hispanic adults have reported being unable to pay their monthly bills, compared with 26% of white adults. In April, 61% of Hispanic Americans and 44% Black Americans reported that they or a member of their household had lost a job or wages due to the pandemic, compared to 38% of white adults. With these economic disparities in place, it is not difficult to understand why there are racial disparities in the homeless population. Even in 2019, before COVID-19, nearly every minority group besides Asians were more likely to be homeless than white people.

With the rise in drug relapses, shortages in affordable housing, and economic blight brought about by the pandemic, it is not difficult to see why many people who are struggling financially may not be able to afford a home. However, this does not mean that they should have to resort to homelessness, nor that we as citizens are absolved of taking action. As a city and a community, we need to step up and insure effective and thoughtful solutions to our housing crisis, so that everyone is able to have a home this holiday season and in the future.

One quick way to help: Project HOME has a line of holiday gifts created by homeless people in Philadelphia, providing them jobs and a source of income — and the candles smell amazing! 

Here is a list of some other ways to contribute.