03/05/2013 - Reflections from the Philadelphia Count: Re-dedicating to the Mission

Philadelphia was my second PIT count this year (I was in Boston in December). To me, this is much more than a data gathering exercise—it’s a stark reminder that we've not yet been successful in our cause.  While I am heartened to see the evidence of progress—fewer people living on the street, new supportive housing launched, better coordination and engagement among outreach—I’m disheartened to see our fellow human beings living in such difficult conditions.  The night was a very warm (65 degrees), rainy, and windy. I was assigned to a team responsible for counting and surveying in the Concourse.   

Public information describes the Concourse as a series of underground concourses allowing pedestrians to reach their jobs from the major transportation hubs without having to be exposed to the weather. Most of the Center City area around City Hall and along Market and Broad Streets is connected to the major government buildings and office towers by the Concourse. All of the regional system's Regional Rail Lines stop (and occasionally terminate) here, and access is provided to the Market-Frankford Elevated and Subway Line, the Broad Street Subway Line, and all Subway-Surface Trolley Routes. Additionally, several city buses and company shuttle buses service the exterior of the property. The concourse, dubbed "MetroMarket", provides commuters and the public alike with restroom facilities, customer service, a post office, and a number of eateries and shops.

The Concourse that I experienced between midnight and 3:00 a.m. was generally vacant of any pedestrians heading to or from work or of any amenities for the public. It is a very large and sprawling space.  No shops, eateries, or restroom facilities were available.  It was well lit but quite damp, and we walked around large puddles of water. The primary inhabitants were transit police, drug dealers, a few maintenance personnel, a good number of rats, and 122 people trying to sleep on the damp walkways. One man was trying to shed some layers of clothing to bed down for the night. I felt the shame he must feel about undressing in a public place and the frustration of trying to keep his clothing dry amongst the wet floor.  I felt safe because I was in a group with a police escort, but I felt fear imagining I was the woman huddled in a shop doorway.  And I felt shame imagining needing to use the restroom but not having access to one. The experience was beyond disheartening.

Of those who were awake and surveyed, none accepted an offer of a space in a shelter, expressing views to my team members that shelters were not safe, too many rules, and “not for me.”  The clear and stark need was that of a home—a bed, a bathroom, a kitchen, a closet, and dresser drawers.  We didn't have that to offer. 

In my remarks at Project HOME's outreach center to kick off the Philadelphia count, I said:

With each Count, I re-dedicate myself to the cause that no family, no child, no youth, no Veteran, no man or women should be without a safe, decent place to call home.

At no time did I feel it more strongly than when I surveyed in the Concourse.  Failure to end homelessness is unacceptable. Everyone deserves a home. No one deserves to live in the Concourse.

The next day, I read a piece by Scott Silverman and Iain de Jong in the UT San Diego as they reflected on San Diego’s PIT Count.  It read:

For decades communities poured all of their efforts into building shelters and transitional housing. Neither of these things end homelessness. In fact, they only prolong homelessness. Yes, shelters are needed, but they can’t take the place of permanent housing.

Perhaps the most important fact of all – there is only one known cure to homelessness, and it is called “housing.”

Ending homelessness is actually cheaper than managing homelessness.

There is an adage prevalent in many business schools – if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Well, with homelessness, if we can’t measure the extent of the issue and the amount of investment into it, it is difficult to figure out how to align resources to solve it. The Point in Time Count helps, but in the case of a rainy San Diego morning, we may not have an accurate count. But the real work isn’t counting homeless; it is demanding results in getting people housed.

And to create a solution for homelessness, we need housing – long-term housing and a support system.

And for those of you who will judge, remember that there are only six types of homeless people: someone’s mother or father, sister or brother, son or daughter.  

(Read the full piece here.)

The night following the Philadelphia count, Council Chair VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Council Vice Chair HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, participated in the Washington, DC count. They too believe that failure to end homelessness is unacceptable; everyone deserves a home. Together we re-dedicate our efforts to the cause that no family, no child, no youth, no Veteran, no man or women should be without a safe, decent place to call home. Ending homelessness is possible. It will take all of us to make it happen. 

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