Homelessness in Philadelphia: what I learned working for a social services startup for a year

Last year, I left a position at a homeless advocacy nonprofit and returned to the journalism startup I helped launch. After sharing last month some of the member interviews I collected while working at Back on My Feet, I realized there were other lessons I wanted to share.

I worked for Back on My Feet for less than a year and while there, I wasn’t deep into our programming work, but rather promoting the organization by way of sharing member stories, using social media, managing our website and even working with traditional media contacts. You know, and growing staff interest in content creation, most notably video, like these 15 best examples.

But, you can rest assured that I tried to learn as much as I could with my time there about the social services work and agencies on which our mission and some of my colleagues focused. I was blessed with serving a role that let me meet, speak and share with more of our members than most any of our staff, outside those serving direct care.

I encouraged our staff to use our blog as a way to share homelessness news, and I myself curated weekly news roundups on the subject. I also picked the brains of anyone I came in contact with in or outside ‘the system’ as it is often called.

Given all that, I thought I might share just some of what comes to mind as take aways and lessons from the world of homelessness, particularly in Philadelphia.

I’ll say that while my role with Back on My Feet was national and I took a great interest in homelessness conversations broadly, I naturally saw these challenges through the prism of Philadelphia, where the organization and I were based. I’ll also underscore what I already said: I am in no way a seasoned social services expert, but rather someone who worked with such an organization took great personal interest and curiosity in the field..

On homelessness generally:

  • You don’t know someone, even if you know some of their most intimate experiences — I promised myself very quickly that I wouldn’t act like I knew any of the members with whom I shared a few conversations. There is something tricky about the emotions involved when someone tells you their most personal thoughts, speaks about their most personal experiences. You feel like you know them, and I watched people get confused. I tried to always remind myself that I didn’t really know any of our members. I knew their names and became friendly with some, friendly like you do with anyone you share a handful of conversations, and some even treated me by sharing their stories, but that, I’m afraid, is the end of it. I often knew their stories — the five minute summation of what brought them to where they were — but I didn’t know many of them well.
  • I met men who were institutionalized. Men who, I felt in my very limited experienced with them, were scared to move out or move on. Men who had become accustomed to receiving, as they say in the system, ‘three hots and a cot.’ You get used to that, and, for some, it’s hard to move on because you risk so much.
  • The loss of jobs is the single biggest cause for the growth of homelessness in the past half century — Today we talk a lot in the industry about the shortage of affordable housing, but I feel like that is more of an effect than a cause. This from the second in an impactful four part series of hunger from the Philadelphia Inquirer: “In the district and nearby areas [of the first congressional district], 300,000 jobs disappeared between 1950 and 1980, helping to create a lost world of generations of un- or underemployed people…” Updated: A former colleague wanted to clarify that jobs today is not the only answer he finds many individuals that he works with struggle to keep the job, due to lack of adequate education and training, so continuing education and requisite motivation/inspiration may be a bigger issue to date, though the cycle broke with jobs.
  • Program opportunities are varied — Homeless facilities, street cafes, emergency housing, religious missions, recovery homes, transitional housing, subsidized housing,
  • Rapid rehousing is the biggest conversation happening in homelessness right now — When academics talk about the root problem of homelessness, we circle around (a) education (b) jobs (c) affordable housing. There are entire degrees here that I won’t begin to touch, but there is a big movement to date that focuses on offering housing first to people looking to get out of homelessness. It is still controversial.
  • Financial impact isn’t a consideration for long-term change — Social services groups, in my opinion, have failed to adequately expose the cost to government in acute, chronic and family homelessness. Some are trying, like Philly’s Project H.O.M.E., which released this report [PDF].
  • The first national strategy on combating homelessness landing in 2010 — We are still new to these big conversations.
  • Guys on the street busking for money are just one part of homelessnessCensus numbers for homelessness are controversial, as by nature, the numbers are fluid and nomadic and changing. People leave cities, neighborhoods, move in with friends and relatives, get month-to-month flop houses and then hit the streets again. As noted below, there are dozens of different types of housing facilities, so while permanent housing is usually the gauge for homelessness, what is permanent anyway? People on the street asking for money vary wildly, from those new to the system and down on their luck, to hustlers, to drug and alcohol abusers, to those with clinical physical and mental difficulties making it difficult to serve in facilities. After a year with Back on My Feet, while walking in Center City, I bump into our members from time to time — guys with jobs, those without them — and they are not who even I normally associate with homelessness.

Below, watch Antonio LaBoy, one of our Philadelphia members, with whom I spoke to several times, once at length and on video.

On addiction and recovery: (as noted above, not all of our members experienced addiction, but nearly three quarters of our members did, so there were lots of lessons there)

  • Someone’s first try at addiction recovery will probably fail. But you have to try the first time to get to the second and the third and the fourth time. Somewhere down that path, that person might actually, deeply want to come clean for themselves and, by then, it might actually stick. These are messy, messy affairs.
  • Lots of cliches are overused in this space because they’re so damn accurate. See below.
  • You have to hit rock bottom — The people who succeed in the Back on My Feet program have had their moment of clarity and are often already moving forward when they connect with us. If a member is in the program for any reason other than themselves — for family, for sneakers, even for God — it doesn’t seem to end so well.
  • You will be lied to today — This was something a friend of mine from our programming staff would say to me. We talked a lot about finding the line of supporting members we came to care about and facing the reality of the pressures in their lives, from addiction to friends to family to work to money to the rest, that pushed honesty down in the priority list.
  • Every person is a new person — The stories came to get redundant, but then there were those with totally different stories. I needed to remind myself to not get caught up in stereotypes: for every few members who grew up in bad neighborhoods, dropped out of school, got into selling drugs, then using drugs, then found themselves without another choice but recovery, there was a functioning school teacher or the guy from the suburbs.
  • Recovery is never over — You keep counting those days and saying those prayers. You’re not ever recovered. You’re recovering, in recovery or, as an alumnus of our program once told me, “trying to remember everyday why I’m not doing those things anymore, even two years later.”
  • Addiction can come about in many forms — Like drugs and alcohol and work and physical abuse, as one of our Boston members taught me, as you can see below.

On the social services industry and those who work in it:

  • Social service staff have to draw and maintain firm boundaries and lines, which often intersect, cross and conflict with the hopes, dreams and lives of people, real, living, breathing human beings.
From left: Back on My Feet Media Director Christopher Wink; New Jerusalem Member David Bayo; Ridge Shelter Member Lavon Norwood; Philadelphia Executive Director Sera Snyder; at back Henry A. Davidsen custom tailoring founder Brian Lipstein, who donated the suits many of our members are wearing; in front, motivational speaker Warren McDonald; New Jerusalem Member Merald Archie; Outley House Member Derrick Hopkins and RWA Member Felix Berrios at a Philadelphia Business Clubs of America meeting at the Union League on July 23, 2010.

On Philadelphia’s homelessness services:

  • There is a vibrant and varied social services community in Philadelphia. Lots of groups, lots of interest, lots of politics, lots of perspective.
  • Ridge Avenue Shelter, at Broad and Ridge near Fairmount, is the single male intake facility and because of that, the city’s largest facility. Because of all of that, Ridge is being closed this year. In a movement also seen in schools, we’re moving toward smaller, more targeted facilities.
  • Resources for Human Development, which manages Ridge, and Public Health Management Corporation are two of the biggest players — These Philly based companies contract out with the city to manage many of the facilities and do other related work. For example, RHD prints One Step Away, a street newspaper, written, edited, published and sold by people experiencing homelessness.
  • Project H.O.M.E is the most respected and varied big-name program — The magnus opus of Sister Mary Scullion. You aren’t a real player in this community if you don’t know Sister Mary, and your organization isn’t real if it isn’t partnering with Project H.O.M.E. That said, all of the better known programs, like Project H.O.M.E., are always called into question for being better at PR than deep impact. It’s a regular debate.
  • “Philadelphia’s shelter system makes beggars out of hustlers,” another member told me, noting that compared to other cities he had been, one could get more comfortable here. [Note: one person’s take]
  • Don’t give change on the streets — It sounds so cruel. So, really, it shouldn’t necessarily be a rule, but just an understanding. It’s not a free card to not care, it’s recognizing that the issue is so complex that change just gets lost for so many reasons. So, sure, give change when the moment feels right, but understand that (A) there are free, obligation-free meals given nearly every time of day in Philadelphia and (B) you probably could have a bigger impact by volunteering your time or giving your money to an existing organization that has a mission of combating homelessness.
  • Keeping in mind the controversy noted above, there are an estimated 7,600 homeless people in Philadelphia at any given time.
  • Every group of people, including those experiencing homelessness, has hardworking people and people trying to get over on the system. I felt my most liberal of co-workers were too trusting and the few too jaded were too judgmental. Both had their reasons. I met and came to know men and women who were truly trying to make good, but I also came to know members who felt entitled and angry. They, too, had their reasons, but often that entitlement and anger affected wrongly those who deserved it least.
  • Download the 2009 Philadelphia Street Sheet here [PDF], which includes a list of provided meals throughout the city. You can also find a list of meals provided throughout the city here.
  • Homelessness services listed here.
  • There are legends of Philadelphia’s homeless community — There’s the Chicken Man and Adam, the soccer player who signs $15 checks to homeless people every Monday after.
  • Those seeking help often tended to be older — Our Back on My Feet members were more regularly at least 40, and other homelessness groups had similar stories, as a lot of young people crash with others and are still ‘in the lifestyle,’ to use a phrase of our members. That said, young adults are a growing part of homelessness in this economy.
  • There is a hotline to call — And weather requirements encourage the city to use it. Outreach Hotline at 215-232-1984

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