Homeless for decades, she now persuades others to come inside

Project HOME outreach worker Michelle Sheppard, left, talks to a homeless man inside Suburban Station in Center City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. Sheppard, who herself was homeless for many years, now works to persuade homeless Philadelphians to seek shelter.

On this frozen Friday in January, Michelle Sheppard returned to Sherwood Forest.

That’s what everyone called the vestibule in the depths of Suburban Station, the one off JFK Boulevard, where Michelle and other homeless people would sleep, behind the marble pillars that lined the hallway. Hidden like Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

A whimsical name for a dire place.

For nearly three decades, Michelle, who is 53, called the cold concrete home. Four years ago, she came in from the cold.

Now, with the city in the grip of a historic freeze, she comes back to the place where she used to sleep  – as a Project HOME outreach worker.

“Do you want to come in?” she asked a man in layers, bracing himself in the frigid vestibule.

The call of crack

It was the late 1980s, and Michelle was 21, with babies and a boyfriend she feared, living in a Grays Ferry rowhouse. She fled to North Philly to escape the boyfriend, but couldn’t escape the pull of crack cocaine. Her children went to live with family. She went to live behind the old Spaghetti Warehouse, on a cardboard mattress. She spent years there, in the alley behind the restaurant. Then years in a sleeping bag outside the Family Courthouse, where scores of homeless people once lived. And all those frozen winters in Sherwood Forest.

She never grew used to it – the train station bathrooms, the fear, the cold – but on the streets in the grip of her addiction, she felt a freedom.

“It was scary at first,” she said of living on the street. “But when I got used to staying out there, I just stayed.”

By 2014, the workers at the winter outreach center run by Project HOME in Suburban Station knew Michelle well. The Hub of Hope wasn’t far from Sherwood Forest. She was a regular.

Carol Thomas, the agency’s director of homeless services, would engage her whenever she came through. Michelle was always pleasant, Carol remembers, but always resistant.

“But we were equally persistent,” Carol said.

It took two years. One day, Michelle walked in. She was ready.

She entered a 19-month city recovery program called the Journey of Hope.

“Once I allowed them to help me,” she said, “I did the rest of the work.”

Her graduation present was a set of keys to a Project HOME apartment in North Philly. One of her neighbors was a man she knew from her days on the Parkway, homeless for decades as she’d been. He wore his keys around his neck now, out of pride.

Michelle went inside, placed the key on her dresser, and danced around the apartment.

Last year, she regained custody of her 15-year-old daughter, Cierra.

“I am proud of her,” Cierra told me. “Not only did she recover from addiction — and it takes courage and patience to do that – but she is helping others.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Project HOME outreach worker Michelle Sheppard talks to a homeless man inside Suburban Station on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. Sheppard, who herself was homeless for many years, now works to persuade homeless Philadelphians to seek shelter.

Volunteer with a knack

After graduation, Michelle went to Carol Thomas and asked if she could volunteer at the Hub. It wasn’t something Carol was prone to do – accepting a volunteer so early in recovery.

But, she said, “there is something special about Michelle.”

After just a year of volunteering, Michelle was hired as an outreach worker.

She knew almost everyone in the station. She was outgoing. She was persistent, carrying outreach pamphlets on her at all times, even when she wasn’t working. She shared her story.

Michelle became a role model, Carol said, offering what is needed most: a reminder that there is hope for everyone and in everyone on the streets.

And Michelle was good at getting people inside. Like Miss Edie, who slept next to her in Sherwood Forest, and who no one seemed to be able to reach. Miss Edie refused to come inside, believing for years a family member was coming for her.

“We have to go and get ourselves now, baby,” Michelle would tell her.

It took her a year.

“I just stuck with her and it got her in,” Michelle said. “And it felt good to get her in.”

As the mercury falls, her numbers rise

On Friday, she and Carol made the rounds through Suburban Station, Michelle calling out person after person by name, doling out hugs and pamphlets, urging them to come inside. And some finally did.

Like the man in the wheelchair whom she found at Dunkin’ Donuts, whom she’d been working for months. She leaned in close to listen to him. This time she persuaded him.

And there was the man with an icicle in his beard. She handed him a napkin and talked him into going to a hospital.

This winter, she and her regular partner, Edward Dover, have done this again and again, every day, with temperatures plummeting, the stakes higher than ever and with hundreds of extra city beds opening to accommodate as many people as possible during the freeze.

Over the last two weeks, the woman who took three decades to come inside has persuaded 45 people to follow her out of the cold.