While Philadelphia has a reputation for its toughness and the presence of the homeless, the homeless count is actually decreasing.
According to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, a report published each year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the point in time numbers for the total number of homeless individuals in Philadelphia has decreased by almost 500 people from 2006 to 2011.
However, many still see homelessness as a large issue in the city.
Though homelessness is prevalent in Philadelphia, it may not be as widespread as people may think.
“It’s not like [Philadelphia] has a problem that’s a lot worse than others,” said Stephen Metraux, Health Policy and Public Health professor. “It’s still an issue, but when people say we’re overwhelmed by homeless, that’s really not the case.”
Metraux, who has been conducting research on homelessness since 1995, distinguishes between homelessness and the perception of it. “If you’re not used to seeing the homeless, and you’re suddenly seeing people around, your perception will be that homelessness is getting worse. But it could just be moving.”
He cited the Occupy Philadelphia movement as an example. “If they get shut down, they’ll pop up somewhere else, like mushrooms. It gets to be a shell game where the cycle repeats itself again.”
Homeless shelters on campus or in parks might not the best solution to homelessness. “Homeless camps tend to get a life of their own,” he said. “If things are okay, then you’ll get more homeless people coming, then more noise, then people in the area will start to feel uncomfortable. Then there’ll be more trash, more panhandling, and more pressure on the police to clear the camp.”
Homelessness near campus
The Division of Public Safety does not immediately force the homeless people near campus to evacuate.
Metraux said the police usually try to “engage [homeless people] and be restrained unless there’s some kind of problem.”
Gary Williams, an Administrative Lieutenant of DPS, said that the majority of people that the officers come into contact with are not actually homeless, but live in St. Columba, a nearby homeless shelter.
As far as panhandlers go, disturbances are “handled by a case-by-case basis,” Williams said. “Quite often, we’ve dealt with them before, so we know them.”
DPS offers the homeless food, clothing and mental help. With the homeless person’s consent, officers will contact the University City District and take the homeless person by van to a nearby shelter, Williams said.
“When people get concerned about the homeless, sometimes it’s for good reasons, and other times it’s out of their own fear and paranoia. They want something done. That’s where the outreach services come in,” Metraux said.
Metraux believes Philadelphia has done a great job with outreach services compared to other cities. “We go into cities and parks and engage with them actively and try to get them into service,” citing the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness as an example.
Project H.O.M.E. is a non-profit homeless shelter that partners with Penn and is run by Sister Mary Scullion. Scullion has worked extensively with Social Policy & Practice professor Dennis Culhane, Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush and others at Penn who “are interested in the quality of life for everyone in the community,” Scullion said. The organization has a special needs residence at 42nd and Chestnut streets and other housing developments around the Penn and Temple University areas.
“We have relationships with a lot of the universities,” Scullion said. “We all want to ensure that there’s a quality of life for everyone in our community.”
Those with mental health disabilities are provided with a general healthcare system — psychiatrists and nurses for primary and mental healthcare. In addition, Project H.O.M.E. also provides peer support specialists who were once homeless and had mental health disabilities, but who were able to recover through the program.
“Project H.O.M.E. is so successful because it helps people move out of homelessness and into sustainability for themselves, a self-sufficiency,” Rush said. “It’s not just about the quality for us in University City, but for the individuals, too.”
“Penn students have served as great partners in trying to stop homelessness, Scullion said. “We’re proud of our partnership with Penn’s DPS and other parts, as well.”
However, Metraux believes homeless shelters should only be used for crisis management.
“A lot of people stay in shelters for longer than they’re in crisis. Over the years, it’s become more of a warehouse than a crisis response mechanism.”
He proposed a solution of supportive housing — housing that is affordable. “Putting people through housing instead of shelters is a better idea from a human point of view and also money-wise, since once people get placed into housing, they’re a lot less likely to go to jail,” he said.Comments powered by Disqus
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