City needs new homeless strategy

Each day before dusk blankets the city, numerous homeless families are trying to figure out where they will spend the night. Too many could end up under the stars.

The need for emergency shelter has grown drastically since the recession, but the city’s ability to help homeless families has been unable to match the demand. All 1,544 beds for families at city-funded shelters are occupied on most nights.

The statistics tell a heartbreaking story of the destitute families who account for more than half of the city’s homeless population. They want to keep their families together, but there are few viable options. Some stay temporarily with a friend or relatives, shuffling between homes.

Homeless advocates say they have never seen so many families callously turned away. But with continued high unemployment and mounting foreclosures, the 3,000 homeless people in Philadelphia are likely to see their ranks grow even larger.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 1.6 million persons experienced homelessness between Oct. 1, 2009, and Sept. 30, 2010, a 2.2 percent increase from its previous survey. In Pennsylvania, nearly 14,000 people are identified as homeless, and about 14,500 in New Jersey.

The numbers show the need for more federal and state funding to address homelessness. Getting people off the street and into permanent housing should be a higher priority. Fixing the problem will save taxpayers money, since it costs more to place people in shelters and hospitals than to find permanent housing.

Mayor Nutter came up with a solid plan in 2008 to address the city’s persistent homeless problem. But that effort has fallen short, mostly as a result of funding problems and other factors.

To its credit, the city did make up for more than $2.3 million in state funding for shelters that was eliminated this year. But even that is only enough to maintain the current number of beds available for homeless families.

Nutter’s plan was further compromised by the problems at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, including the dismissal of former PHA Executive Director Carl R. Greene. Greene had agreed to designate 300 public-housing units for families in shelters. But by the end of June, PHA had made available only 45 units.

Homeless advocates are understandably considering legal action to get PHA to live up to its commitment, which should be honored no matter who is running the agency. In the meantime, the city needs to reenergize its efforts to get homeless families off the street. It’s time to find a new strategy that works.