In the mid 1980s Philadelphia seemed to be drowning in homelessness. Everywhere you went there were people sleeping on the street or walking around ranting out loud to no one in particular and screaming at residents. The city’s answer to that problem was first to try and ignore them and if that didn’t work the police arrested them. The programs were few and far in-between.
The homeless did find themselves an advocate named Sister Mary Scullion or she found them. Through her hard work and activism programs were established. Slowly the stigma of the homeless started to change. Many of them who were identified as chronically homeless suffered from mental health issues or substance abuse issues. Through the sister’s Project HOME initiative this population got help. A lot of help. Although Sister Mary should be lauded for her accomplishments it only really helped a certain homeless population.
Every year in Philadelphia there are over 15,000 people who seek out assistance from the city-run shelter system called the Office of Emergency Shelter and Services (OESS). Over 55% of these people are single women with children. Every day several of these women and children are turned out into the street to fend for themselves because there aren’t enough beds available especially for women with less than 3 kids.
The OESS staff is actually of the deluded mindset that these women and children have some place to go for the night, but they don’t.
Recently a group of women decided they had enough and staged a protest over the course of two days regarding the city’s inadequate number of beds available in the shelter system. Ironically even though they were told countless times that there were no beds available for them the city managed to find beds right away. The city also bought them pizza so not only did they get a place to sleep, but they also got a meal.
This wasn’t a solution to a problem, but merely a band-aid. It wasn’t even a band-aid for the actual problem, but one to keep a lid on a public relations nightmare for the city during the peak of the tourist season. Big fail Mayor Nutter.
So what do women with children who need shelter have to go through to get help? This is a typical day in their life:
The women, their children and belongings have to find their own way to the OESS offices which is located on North Juniper Street by Broad and Arch. Some will have the money to ride SEPTA, but most end up walking from different parts of the city to get there because as any bus driver will tell you SEPTA is not a charity.
Once they enter the building they are greeted by a search of their belongings and told they cannot bring any food or drinks in with them. A large sign is posted on the wall that for women who have to change their baby’s diaper they have to take the soiled diaper outside and put it in a trash can. Every time they go out and come back in they’re searched again.
Once inside they don’t encounter staff who are caring and compassionate, but arrogant and power-hungry security guards and intake workers as well as receptionists. The women are told that they aren’t to come to the desk to ask questions until they are called. They can’t use a cell phone or any electronic devices. If they need to make a phone call the women have to gather their children, their belongings and go outside only to be searched again when they come back in.
There are representatives from the school district who take children into another room for instruction for an hour or two, but not all the kids because there isn’t enough room. There’s no play area for the kids to go and nothing for them to do. They’re expected to sit in chairs in a small room with their parent for over 7 hours. They can’t leave except for lunch when they’re given a voucher and have to go to another facility for food.
Nobody in the office seems to do any real work until after lunch when they start the intake process. About 3:30 PM the supervisor comes out and lets everyone know that all the beds are filled because preference is given to women with 3 or more kids and single women because that’s where the most beds are. For single women with less than 3 kids or intact families (both parents) well they’re pretty much out of luck. They are told to leave (the staff doesn’t care where the women go) and come back tomorrow because perhaps their luck in finding a place for their kids will improve.
These women do this every day for weeks on end.
It should come as no big shocker that Philadelphia out of the biggest cities in the nation is the leader when it comes to poverty and that neither the city nor the state seems to care about how chronic homelessness affects these children as they go from place to place or end up sleeping in the streets.
For a mayor who loves to start initiatives (Fun Safe Philly Summer, Faith Based Initiatives and Greenworks) and establish committees such as Philadelphia Safety Collaborative he seems to not place any real importance on the plight of these women and their children. For a mayor and council members who can come up with millions of dollars for the school district all in the name of the children they don’t seem to care about the ones who don’t know where they’ll be sleeping that night.
So what should be done?
Well Mayor Nutter the OESS needs a bigger facility that meets their needs and that is located in a better place. Instead of slashing the OESS’s budget every year try finding money to give them. Take it out of City Council’s budget or the money you manage to find for all your other pet projects.
Provide as many beds as necessary to fill the need and expect some years you may need more than others, but realize that if you start to look at ways this problem can be corrected you’ll find that the need for beds will actually shrink.
What you don’t have the space? Buy one of the old school buildings that are up for sale and turn it into a safe haven for single women and their children. The first floor can serve as new space of OESS.
Form a committee that will address chronic homelessness among this particular population. It may be something as simple as making it mandatory that while in the shelter system these women obtain their GED’s or get job training something that isn’t necessarily embraced in the state’s Welfare Reform policies.
Provide support groups or counseling in the emergency shelters for those who need it even if they don’t think they need it. Finally make it a part of the city’s oath that no single mother and her children will sleep in an unsafe environment or on the streets ever again.
If any of this is too difficult for you or any members of City Council to do perhaps you should think about how it would feel if your wives, children, sisters, mothers, nieces or nephews had no place to go except to OESS. Would you want them being turned out onto the streets?