Currently, 5,700 men, women and children are living without permanent, functional housing in the city of Philadelphia. They are bouncing between temporary living situations, residing with family or friends, and couch-surfing. They are residents of shelter facilities, wards of the city or state, or otherwise. Of that number, nearly one thousand are unsheltered, i.e. living on the streets in encampments and doorways, church vestibules and alleyways, in subway stations and parks. The various degrees of this condition range from the highly visible to the virtually invisible, with a unique set or sets of circumstances, causes, solutions, impacts upon those experiencing it, and reactions from those observing it. In other words, nothing about homelessness is one-dimensional and any and all meaningful conversation on this topic must begin with that acknowledgment.
Low Incomes, High Costs
Even before the pandemic, millions of Americans were facing housing insecurity– or, a lack of stable shelter due to circumstances which may include affordability relative to personal income, safety, availability, condition or quality of housing and more. The sudden upheaval in the wake of the pandemic truly exposed the weaknesses in America’s housing structure and absolutely exacerbated those weaknesses, escalating an already fraught issue to nearly unmanageable proportions.
The causes here in Philadelphia are essentially the same as elsewhere: mainly the rising cost of housing coupled with low incomes, especially at the start of the pandemic. What sets Philadelphia apart is the fact that housing costs are relatively low for a city of its size, and considerably lower than counterpart high-poverty, populous cities. The main problem here is that a whopping 88% of Philly renters are cost- burdened; of that number, 68% are severely cost- burdened– meaning 50% or more of their monthly income covers housing only. This has created an extremely high demand for affordable housing in a landscape where there is simply none to be found for the majority of renters in Philadelphia, who are gradually being priced out of their own city.
There’s also the issue of city resources: where they exist, they aren’t substantially funded enough to be accessible to everyone who needs them. For example, Philadelphia has about 40,000 residents returning from incarceration every year. The city operates an Office of Reentry Partnerships, which ostensibly serves that population with connections to housing and other resources; however, the scope of that department’s impact or reach is yet unclear, due most likely to gaps in tracking. Youth involved with, or transitioning out of, foster care and the child welfare system disproportionately experience housing insecurity and homelessness. Philadelphia attempted to answer this need with the Rapid Rehousing program, whose process at times was so sluggish and the outcomes so inconsistent that many of the young participants were still experiencing homelessness for up to a year, even as they waited eagerly for the program to work for them.
The city operates a network of about 60 providers and advocacy programs to make up its platform of homelessness services. With the volume of folks experiencing and entering into homelessness every day, however, it begs the question: is any of it enough?
As an issue, homelessness touches many different concerns, depending what the motives are: it’s been framed as a public health issue, an infrastructure issue, an economic issue, a cultural/ social issue, an issue of human rights, a crime and public safety issue, and so forth. The framing shifts depending on who raises the issue and to what purpose, and very often is intentionally presented alongside some new policy or another, i.e the framing of homelessness as an issue of crime and public safety presented alongside new ‘crackdown’ policies. Obviously, this is not unique to Philadelphia in any way.
All in all, there are very few proactive measures being taken on a grand scale to eradicate homelessness. To all intents and purposes, the bare bones of this issue can be solved today. Vacant properties and lots are plenty in this city, many of which are tied up in municipal fine processes and varying degrees of abandonment and dereliction. What’s making things so tough for grassroots advocates around the city is a lack of public buy-in: while the larger argument for the delay and the languid moves toward human equity usually center on what “they” (here referring mostly to legislators) won’t do to eradicate poverty, the steps “they” refuse to take… in reality, what anti-homelessness advocates nationwide are fighting against is the general apathy and disinclination of regular people.
City government tend to claim that they’re answering the concerns of housed, tax paying citizens. When police sweep through encampments and tent cities, their actions are framed as removing a “nuisance” or a “blight” to the neighborhood. Across communities, people often misperceive folks experiencing homelessness as dangerous, subhuman, frightening and largely culpable for their own suffering. For these reasons, people are often loath– and vocally resistant– to sparing resources on their unhoused neighbors. Dehumanizing and harmful perceptions such as these only reinforce social divides and eradicate support for lasting change.
The conversations about homelessness are ongoing and seemingly without resolution. Whatever an individual’s or Philly government’s driving motive for eradicating homelessness, it can be reconciled to a common goal. The trick we must practice and perfect as a city is to anchor that motive in humanity– letting the preservation of human life, health, and dignity frame our approach and govern our actions at every step.