Credit: Ilana Wurman

On a single night in January 2016 more than half a million people were homeless in the United States, with approximately 32 percent unsheltered. In Philadelphia alone, there were more than 6,000 people homeless on that night.

With so many homeless people, shelters are frequently understaffed and underfunded, sometimes turning people away when they cannot accommodate everyone. Nursing junior Laura Ng said the use of the shelter system to deal with homelessness can, at times, leave the homeless feeling bitter and alone.

That’s where the volunteers of Penn Project One come in. Ng founded the organization two years ago to alleviate homelessness on a personal level. The project’s philosophy is simple: recognizing those experiencing homelessness as people first, and their condition of being homeless second. “It’s about treating a person as a person in a system that can, at times, take away their humanity,” Ng said. “For us, that humanity starts with simply saying hello.”

While the group also frequently assists various homeless shelters and programs across the city, Project One’s “On The Ground” initiative involves approaching homeless individuals and offering them lunch and someone to talk to.

While working through On the Ground two years ago, College junior and Vice President of Penn Project One Mattie Stokes interacted with a woman who defied her preconceptions of homelessness. “There was a woman at a bus stop that was nicely dressed, her hair done up, asking for change,” she said. “She was recently laid off, she had three kids and she decided to sell her house in order to continue paying for her children’s education.”

Often, homelessness is caused by problems that anyone can have, such as being laid off from work or lacking affordable housing, according to the website of Philadelphia nonprofit Project HOME. Samantha Hernandez, a College sophomore and the public relations officer for Penn Project One, is constantly working to change people’s preconceptions and lessen the stigma surrounding homelessness.

“I think a lot of time we want to use prejudices and stereotypes we have about people in order to decide how we are going to interact with these people,” she said. “A lot of people believe that a lot of homeless people are also mentally ill, but that’s a small percentage.”

Many members of the project talked about the story of David Brown. “After escaping an abusive home, David lived on the streets for 25 years,” Ng said. “He got taken advantage of, he got beaten up a number of times, once he was sleeping on the street and saw teenagers set a fellow homeless person’s feet on fire.”

Now he is employed through Project HOME, living in a clean studio apartment and working to make up many years of lost education.

However, his story is still uncommon. Although Project HOME estimated that the number of homeless people in Philadelphia has decreased over the last couple of years, the volunteers at Penn Project One say there is still much to be done. “The only way to address homelessness long-term is to be comprehensive,” Ng said. “They need job security, they need adequate housing, they need medical and mental health care.”

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