Philadelphia has long tried to find temporary shelter and permanent housing for those unable to find it for themselves. Because of that commitment by charitable and governmental agencies, it is ahead of most large cities in meeting the homeless’ needs.
In January, the city will embark on a new phase by opening a homeless service center in an unused corridor of the commuter tunnel near Broad and Arch Streets. The underground facility will provide some of the basic amenities of a home: bathrooms, food, showers, and a place to hang out daily, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., where they are treated with respect.
Using the center may take the edge off the paralyzing strain of survival on the streets, so that maybe some homeless can take advantage of social service programs that could help them get back on their feet.
The center ingeniously addresses two sides of the issue: providing services and discouraging panhandling. Primarily, the center is a humane response to a human crisis. No person of good faith wants anyone to starve or freeze to death on the streets. But neither do Center City pedestrians and businesses want to be hit up by aggressive panhandlers looking for that mythical transit fare home, a cigarette, or a few dollars for food.
Critics say the day center will attract more homeless to Center City. But look around. They’re already there.
The latest homeless census in 2016 showed there were almost 780 unsheltered homeless persons in Philadelphia, about 460 of them in Center City. Every year about 15,000 people use shelters. But many are turned away to spend the night in an alley or over a steam grate because the shelters have reached capacity.
Other cities are trying to cope too. In Seattle, the homeless live in tents on empty lots. In Los Angeles, the city spends millions cleaning up encampments. In Chicago, the homeless sleep in the viaducts under Lake Shore Drive.
New York City has six day-time, drop-in centers and plans to open two more by the end of this year.
Philadelphia’s center should be open soon too, but it wouldn’t be so far along if not for some enlightened thinking at SEPTA.
For years, homeless advocates tried to find a Center City location for a day center. And then came SEPTA, which had noticed an increase of homeless at Suburban Station, where as many as 350 a day seek warmth in the winter.
SEPTA, the city, and Project HOME, a charity long in the forefront of fighting homelessness, came up with the plan. The city and SEPTA are chipping in $1.4 million for the facility in an unused police substation. Project HOME is holding a fund-raiser in November to cover food and furnishings.
Advocates say this center is a stopgap measure until people can be funneled into permanent solutions, including affordable housing. Once open, the center will be an essential part of solving on-street homelessness in a city that takes pride in how it treats people.