Philadelphia community leaders are coming together February 4, from 12-2pm to distribute One Step Away newspapers in Center City alongside homeless vendors for our 2016 Big Sell Off. The Big Sell Off is an international collaboration between street papers in 35 countries, supporting and celebrating the more than 27,000 vendors at 112 street papers worldwide working to change their lives and escape poverty and homelessness.
“The Big Sell Off lets people know that this isn’t a hidden problem, that homelessness exists in our cities – in our backyards – across the world,” says Guest Vendor Todd Silverstein, COO of RHD, “I want to help open people’s eyes to homelessness: people who normally wouldn’t be paying attention.”
“One Step Away is a deeply important organization that helps employ and empower the homeless while increasing visibility around social justice issues. LGBT persons in particular are disproportionately likely to be homeless. I am proud to participate in the Big Sell Off Event and stand with my friend Jayden to help combat poverty and homelessness,” says Nellie Fitzpatrick, Director of LGBT Affairs for the City of Philadelphia and 2016 Guest Vendor.
Ending homelessness in Philadelphia is not a lofty goal in the eyes of Marie Nahikian, current director of the Office of Supportive Housing (OSH); it is practical and achievable.
The city does not have thousands living in the streets like Los Angeles and it doesn’t have 58,000 people living in shelters like New York City, where Nahikian worked for almost 20 years.
Philadelphia does, however, have the highest rate of deep-poverty among large cities (12.2 percent, nearly twice the national rate of 6.3, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey). So while there are about 650 people living on the street (according to the 2015 Point-in-Time Count) and 3,000 people in shelters (according to Nahikian) at any one time, there are many more Philadelphians who are either at a high risk of losing their homes or already have and depend on others for shelter.
The goal of ending homelessness is not a simple one, but it is, Nahikian insists, achievable.
“It revolves around having resources and having strong leadership,” she says, “leaders who really believe that we should be meeting people where they’re at.”
While she is not even a year into her tenure as Director of OSH, she has already seen the successes that come along with dedication and coordination.
What is the Office of Supportive Housing?
When Nahikian became Director of the Office of Supportive Housing in January 2015 she had some big shoes to fill. Her predecessor, Dianette Mintz, headed the department for 32 years and was a leader in influencing how Philadelphia viewed people experiencing homelessness. Mintz prompted the departmental renaming from the Office of Emergency Shelter to the Office of Supportive Housing, a change that represented a shift in focus from immediate stopgap measures to long-term housing solutions.
So what is the role of The Office of Supportive Housing under Nahikian’s leadership?
“It depends on who you ask,” she responds.
“Some people think we’re social services, other people think we’re housing, I think we’re probably both,” Nahikian states. “I sometimes say that the role of supportive housing is that we touch all things associated with homelessness. Our mission is to try to meet people where they’re at when they’re experiencing an emergency, but also to prevent [homelessness].”
While the majority of OSH’s funds are spent on emergency housing, homelessness prevention is the sustainable solution in Nahikian’s eyes.
“Whether you’re a taxpayer and worried about how public tax dollars are spent, or whether you’re a family that is, as your paper says, ‘one step away’ from being homeless, it is much better to keep people out of emergency housing,” she says.
Since any number of factors can leave a person or family homeless, OSH utilizes a variety of prevention methods.
“We do rent assistance, we do mortgage foreclosure assistance, we assist with security deposits and utility payments through a whole bunch of community partners, and we use as many strategies as you can possibly come up with,” says Nahikian.
These preventative measures help stabilize a family or individual through a difficult period so that they can have an easier path to getting back on their feet.
“It is literally but for one small event in your life that you can become homeless. All you have to do is need to pay for one funeral or get your hours cut from 40 to 20, you don’t pay your rent, and there you are,” says Nahikian, “sometimes people only need some short-term stability in order to get themselves moving forward.”
Stability and support are themes throughout all of OSH’s programs, not just the prevention wing.
“Emergency and permanent supportive housing, for the most part, provide some package of services that are needed to support individuals as they try to become more self-sustainining,” Nahikian states, proceeding to highlight a new project.
“We have an initiative called the Healthy Baby Initiative, checking in on infants who are living in shelters on a regular basis to make sure they are getting what they need and being fed,” says Nahikian. “We have at any one time, about 3,000 people in shelters and in emergency housing, and probably about 40 percent of those are children.”
Through their various programs OSH helps all people, from babies through adulthood, stabilize and overcome homelessness.
This holiday season many of us are looking forward to nestling into our couch and looking out our frost-covered windows, appreciating the warmth and fortune of having a place to call our home. The cold months ahead remind us of our lives and the paths we have taken to get us through the coming New Year.
But the cold truth is that there are thousands of homeless men and women around us who do not have the luxury of a place to call home. We are all a part of this, whether we try to be or not, because inaction can be just as impactful as action; and the reality is that no matter what action you take to help those in need, all human beings strive for symbiosis. People need people.
While the primary cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing, people with disabilities are over represented among persons experiencing homelessness.
In 2006, the U.S. government replaced “hunger” with the term “food insecure“ to differentiate between the temporary physical feeling that accompanies lack of nourishment and the extended periods of time that people lack access to proper nutrition. Often a result of income inequality, food insecurity is defined as the inability to afford enough food to maintain a healthy and fulfilling life.
Regardless of the name, the U.S. has seen food insecurity increase drastically since the 1960s, from one in 20 Americans to now one in seven.
Meanwhile, as emergency food pantries and soup kitchens have increased from a few hundred emergency food programs in 1980 to over 50,000 today, they cannot keep up with demand. To cope with increasing demand, pantries limit distribution availability, reduce the amount of food given out, or turn people away.
On Sept. 28, the MacArthur Foundation announced the recipients of its 2015 fellowships, also known as “genius grants.” Among the 24 innovative artists, academics, and activists awarded the $625,000 stipend was sociologist Matthew Desmond, who has been exploring the role of housing policy in perpetuating economic and racial inequality in American cities.
A professor at Harvard University, Desmond studies the low-income rental market in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and has asserted that eviction is a cause, rather than simply a symptom, of poverty.
He has extensively researched the high rates of eviction in Milwaukee and the destructive effect it has on the lives of low-income citizens, primarily African Americans. Among his findings are the trend that women are more likely to face eviction than men, and that women who report domestic violence in Milwaukee are frequently evicted because a local ordinance deems the reports “nuisance calls.” The ordinance has since been put under review by the city.
I was struck immediately by the realism of “Time Out Of Mind.” It is blindingly accurate about the conditions, troubles, and the delusional behavior that accompany homelessness. It was an amazing journey for Richard Gere during which he experienced the streets of New York like he never experienced them before. Gere is a well-known actor, but there’s a scene in which he’s standing on a street corner in Manhattan begging for change and nobody recognizes him. They walked past him like they would any other homeless or shabby-looking individual.
Watching the movie could be slightly traumatizing to anyone who’s been through homelessness or very inspiring to anyone who has never been through this or seen anything like this. I think it should be required viewing for anyone who has aspirations for helping the homeless or who wishes to reach out to anyone who needs this kind of help.
The one thing that stood out to me about the character is that he was at a point in his life where he didn’t feel that he needed any help. He had to be convinced that he needed help by somebody who had already been in the shelter. He figured he could pull himself out, but he was going backwards, he was getting backwards. I myself had to learn how to ask for help because I didn’t know — like him, I had no idea of what to do, how to survive, and eventually some veterans helped me out.
One Step Away
On Sept. 17, iconic actor Richard Gere and director Oren Moverman visited Philadelphia to promote their new movie “Time Out Of Mind,” an indie film in which Gere movingly plays George, a man experiencing homelessness and grappling with his existence in a world that has seemingly discarded him.
“It is blindingly accurate about the conditions, troubles, and the delusional behavior that accompanies homelessness,” said formerly homeless One Step Away vendor Jeff Greene in a review of the film that appears in the October edition of the newspaper.
It’s a project close to Gere’s heart, as a passionate advocate for homeless causes, a member of the New York Coalition for the Homeless, and a supporter of the street newspaper movement.
In 2013, things weren’t going so well for Jerome. He had been in and out of homelessness for about two years. He was living at Covenant House’s Rites of Passage facility in Kensington but having trouble keeping a job. Looking for direction and to make some connection, Jerome attended a Hand2Paw volunteer session and never looked back. The experience delivered the direction and connection he was seeking and changed his life.
Hand2Paw started in 2009 when Rachel Cohen, a Penn student, came up with an idea that would connect two underserved groups – homeless teenagers (who frequently are seen on the streets clinging to their pets) and shelter animals, desperately in need of more care and attention than shelters have the staff to provide. Each year, over two million young people ages 18 to 21 face a period of homelessness. Those aging out of foster care without a permanent placement face a daunting 25 percent risk of homelessness. Many of the youth who participate in Hand2Paw ended up at the shelter because they aged out of the foster care system without ever being adopted or placed in any type of permanent, stable situation. Others fled abusive homes. Still others were kicked out of their homes for revealing a sexual identity that caused controversy in the family. These youth are all considered “at risk.” They are at risk of continued homelessness, unemployment, unplanned pregnancies, and just falling through the cracks.
At the same time, the number of homeless pets is astonishing. Six to eight million animals enter shelters in the United States each year and only about half make it out alive. The Philadelphia animal control shelter takes in about 30,000 animals every year, with about a 70 percent live release rate, so roughly 9,000 animals are euthanized each year in just that one shelter. In addition, dog fighting is prevalent in many cities, and Philadelphia is no exception. The victims of cruelty and fighting are brought to shelters to recover and hopefully get a second chance. Most animal shelters are run entirely with charitable dollars or limited municipal funding so frequently all they can do is provide the minimum of care. That’s where Hand2Paw comes in.