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Addressing Philly's Homelessness

Week 26: January 16, 2021

Over the past two weeks we’ve written about the structures of homelessness in Philadelphia; what they are, who they affect, and what government policies and social pressures have brought us to this point. Today, we look at the ways in which we can address the homelessness epidemic, looking at prevention, rehousing and rehabilitation.

Homelessness prevention programs focus on providing resources to individuals who are imminently at risk of losing their homes. In June of last year, Philly Mayor Jim Kenney had plans to cut our budget for housing initiatives that help provide low-income housing, subsidize first-time home buyers, and help prevent eviction. However, thanks to local and nationwide protests calling for the relocation of police budget funds and increased social services, the city decided to restore many of the funds.

The Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, a program which provides legal representation to tenants at risk of eviction, was able to fend off a planned 75% cut to its $2.1 million dollar budget. Additionally, the Housing Trust Fund (HTF), which provides rent and mortgage assistance and helps create low-income housing for people with special needs had its $20 million dollar funding restored. Despite this victory, the fund was still only able to help 4,000 of the 13,000 applicants before it ran out of money.

Aside from organizations that directly help individuals and families, other solutions include zoning laws, preserving low-income housing units, and making more land available for residential development. While Philadelphia has a zoning plan that enables developers to build on an additional parcel of land if they include low-income housing or donate to HTF, most opt to contribute to the fund instead of building housing units (which would be much more impactful). Therefore, many advocates argue that the policy needs to more heavily encourage the first option.

Additionally, the low-income housing units that are in existence have to be preserved, not only from disrepair but also from being raised to market price (many of the city’s units have subsidies that will expire soon). Finally, land that is currently vacant should be turned into productive infrastructure, including low-income housing. The Land Bank, an organization created with the intention of repurposing vacant land has disappointed many of the non-profit organizations who pushed for its creation in order to build affordable housing on the land because of its slow progress.

Along with homelessness prevention, the city and nonprofits in our area also have several programs with the goal of rehousing and helping those already impacted by homelessness. One example is the city’s Rapid Re-housing program, which aims to help support homeless families transition quickly from shelters into permanent housing. Where traditional programs have various prerequisites before families are able to move into permanent housing, Rapid Re-housing immediately gives families a home and the necessary financing for rent, security deposits, and utilities for up to a year. Any family receiving more than 1 month’s assistance must agree to meet with a homeless Stabilizing Specialist who will refer them to programs that fit each family’s needs.

This is supposed to help reduce average periods of homelessness, increase the turnover of shelter beds (so more people can be helped in shelters), and has been shown to decrease the likelihood of returns into homelessness. Additionally, the program does not take into consideration previous criminal records, mental health, substance abuse, or employment history. This is significant because homelessness often exacerbates these problems, so by allowing people to first be housed, they are then better able to address these issues.

In addition to city-run programs, there are also numerous non-profit organizations working to help people off the streets and into stable housing. Some organizations, such as Project HOME, provide a variety of services and housing options, with ‘Safe Haven’ rehabilitation and psychiatric care options, permanent housing for those who are able to live independently, educational opportunities and job opportunities. Other groups, such as the Bethesda Project provide meals and emergency shelter (they also have a ‘Safe Haven’ rehabilitation facility and permanent housing). Other groups working in the city include Habitat for Humanity, Forget Me Knot, Philabundance, Women Against Abuse, SELF, and Potter’s House Mission.

The burdens of the global pandemic have exacerbated the challenges that push individuals and families into homelessness. While we talked about some of the ways in which the city can work to alleviate homelessness, the root causes of the problem must also be addressed. The systemic racism that leads to disproportionately high rates of incarceration, unemployment, and poverty in Hispanic and Black communities can’t be ignored when developing policy. As individuals we can help by using our voice and our vote to support candidates who are committed to addressing homelessness. We can donate to nonprofits fighting to end homelessness (asking friends and family to make donations instead of buying you a present is a great way to contribute). For a more comprehensive list of individual actions, here is the website from last week.

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