The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

See a photo essay on the homeless in Philadelphia here.

In Philadelphia, poverty can often mean death.

At last count, more than 90 homeless men and women - a group that represents some of Philadelphia's most marginalized citizens - died on the streets in 2008.

They died of exposure, disease and a lack of both service and support. Their tragedy highlights one of the city's greatest public health crises. And the crisis is complex.

"Homelessess isn't really just homelessness," said Laura Weinbaum , public policy director for Project HOME, one of the city's leading advocates on behalf of the homeless. "It is the result of poverty as well as the failure of treatment programs, social service programs and general human compassion."

The victims of these failures are diverse: families living out of cars, the mentally ill and addicts, children leaving the foster care system, LGBT youth.

A Penn student named Jessica - who asked to remain anonymous because of the stigma she and her family might endure if co-workers, friends and neighbors discovered they spent a week in a shelter when she was a child - was once among their ranks.

"We were only there for a few nights," she said. "But it keeps it in perspective. Homeless people aren't necessarily mentally disabled or on the street, begging."

How has Penn, which puts service on par with teaching and research as a pillar of its three-part mission - as described on Penn President Amy Gutmann's Web site and the Penn Compact, her vision for the University - responded to the primary impetus of the homelessness crises: a lack of affordable housing?

How has Penn, with a $5.4 billion annual budget, a $6.2 billion endowment and a prestigious position in Philadelphia's civic and political life, worked to address the suffering of the invisible poor?

When it comes to both teaching and research, the University has consistently contributed to the fight against homelessness. In service, however, it has fallen behind.

'Robust teaching and research'

One of the strongest University-affiliated research programs focused on eradicating homelessness is based at the Treatment Research Institute, a Philadelphia nonprofit organization that, while autonomous, is largely staffed by researchers and scientists with appointments at Penn.

The Penn scientists at TRI bring "scientific knowledge of addiction to the table" and apply their research to help groups like Project HOME improve their addiction treatment strategies, according to Deni Carise , a researcher at TRI and an associate professor of Psychiatry at Penn.

The goal of their work is to "bridge the gap between research and practice," she said.

The scientists hold positions on the Mayor's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness Advisory Committee, a group that generates strategies to combat the problem and has pioneered a computerized patient treatment program, CASPAR, which connects addicts to resources and is used in over 12 treatment centers in the U.S.

Yet the University's strength in research and teaching is most often attributed to the work of School of Social Policy and Practice professor Dennis Culhane, a national expert on homelessness and an advisor to the Obama administration on homelessness prevention.

His work includes an annual report to Congress that assesses nationwide homelessness statistics, research on the rates of children in foster care that go on to become homeless in Philadelphia and the creation of web-based analytical computer programs that map the city's neighborhoods and their human service needs.

He also teaches a freshman seminar called Homelessness and the Urban Crisis, which has inspired some Penn students to join the fight.

"He's fascinating," said College sophomore, Civic Scholar and Undergraduate Assembly representative Mark Pan. "When I was back in San Jose working with the homeless, many of my co-workers knew of Culhane, and when I told them I was going to Penn they told me, 'Oh, you need to take a class with him. It was one of my favorites.'"

There is no doubt that applied research and teaching are essential to eradicating homelessness.

"Research is a huge component," Weinbaum said. "The more Penn can do to do incredible top-notch research about causes and remedies, to support Culhane's shop, to spread the wealth would be appreciated."

But advocates say that, by themselves, research and teaching are not enough. With the current economic crisis looming and the rates of both family and single adult homelessness poised to increase, Weinbaum said, "housing is what is really needed now. If we could convince Penn to do that, it would be amazing."

'Stronger service through shelters'

The People's Emergency Center, one of Philadelphia's top advocates for homeless families, turns down 20 to 25 requests for beds at its shelter each night.

According to Project HOME, the number of homeless deaths on the city's streets has climbed consistently since 2000.

In Philadelphia, Weinbaum and Culhane said, about 300,000 people are living in poverty and nearly 20,000 of them access the shelter system each year.

These numbers are only a few glimpses of the homelessness tragedy - a tragedy that may worsen as a result of the collapse of the housing bubble and the subsequent economic recession. Culhane said he fears the economic crisis will fuel a rapid growth in the homeless population.

"We have a surge of people coming of age in the labor markets," he said. "It is one thing for college graduates who have time and are skilled, and it is another thing for those who have no education or only a high school degree and are low-skilled. We may see a replay of the '80s, when homelessness among young adults was pervasive. The idea is very disturbing. It could be of long-term consequence."

He also highlighted the fact that "there is evidence of an increase in family homelessness around the country. The only good news is that the Obama administration has proposed a $1.5 billion homelessness-prevention effort targeted at families."

These are the hard realities of Philadelphia's streets. And while the University has donated money by way of the Penn's Way Campaign - the annual faculty- and staff-led charitable giving campaign that raised $1.3 million in 2008 - to organizations like Project HOME and the PEC, Penn and its students have not mobilized around the problem like they have around those facing Philadelphia's public schools and health care.

While pockets of students volunteer independently at places like Project HOME and the PEC, there is no organized student- or University-led effort to provide or the resources the homeless most desperately need - housing.

"I honestly don't feel like there's a strong presence of students coming together to fight homelessness," Pan said. "I don't know of any groups on campus that specifically advocate for the homeless."

Professor Ira Harkavy, director of the Netter Center, said he views this reality as a missed opportunity. "The issue of homelessness is a fundamental issue in attaining a decent society," he said. "It is precisely the kind of issue that universities can make a contribution to solving by focusing on the local level and helping to develop programs."

Of all of the Ivy League schools, Harvard is the only to effectively taken advantage of its opportunity to provide housing for the homeless.

The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, a completely student-run shelter in the basement of a church on the edge of campus, has a 20-year history of service. Open seven nights a week from mid-November to mid-April, it provides beds, food, warm showers and laundry machines to 24 homeless people each night.

More than 100 students help out with Harvard's largest volunteer organization. Many spend one night a week at the shelter, which also serves as a resource center, helping "guests" with job searches, affordable housing and public benefits.

"We are always full," said Harvard junior Julia Rudolf, a director at the shelter. "If there is a question of us being needed, we are definitely needed. Of course, we envision a day when we won't be needed."

College senior Ameya Ananth, a student activist who helped run Empty the Shelters - one of Penn's only student organizations that has consistent contact with the homeless through its food distribution campaigns in North Philadelphia - said she would love to see a Penn version of the Harvard shelter.

"Whenever I see homeless people on the street, I want to have somewhere to take them," she said. "I want to be able to tell them there's a warm place that can help get them on their feet."

And in fact, Pan, inspired by the Harvard shelter, plans to ask the UA to convert the lower floor of 1920 Commons - a vacant space beneath Subway and Starbucks - into a shelter for homeless families, to be organized by students.

Fellow Civic Scholar and College freshman Katie McCabe said she has been garnering support for the idea around campus.

"Students I've talked to understand how crucial interaction between the homeless and the rest of the population is," she said of Pan's proposal to have a shelter on campus. "They think it is a great idea. They understand how necessary it is to put a face on [the] homeless."

Pan, McCabe and Ananth say they envision a Penn shelter that acts as a hub where student activists can organize to combat homelessness.

They envision a passionate group of students who will utilize the resources of the University and put pressure on their fellow students, faculty members and administrators to take a more urgent approach to homelessness, an approach dedicated to service in its most tangible form - developing affordable housing.

"You've got to put homelessness on people's minds," Pan said. " You've got to expose them to the reality of the homeless."

Related StoriesPhoto Essay | Homeless in Philadelphia - News
Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.