COVID-19 Exposes Homeless Crisis in Philly

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the number of homeless people in Philadelphia to skyrocket. The result has been a city with sprouting encampments, an increasing number of people who are unemployed, and housing insecurities thus changing the ways the social service agencies are helping.

With the initial stay at home order, the Coronavirus made apparent that thousands of people were already stranded on the streets of Philadelphia. Since that time, many more people have lost jobs and a sense of security, which has led to being behind on their rent, or not having enough money to stay housed. As the stay at home order was enforced, the problem of where the homeless in Philadelphia are supposed to go has become a recurring question.

Valerie Johnson from Pathways to Housing PA stated, “Homelessness is a symptom of a broken system. Generational poverty, discrimination, unemployment, and trauma all lead to homelessness. COVID-19 has affected those living unsheltered right now, but it will also lead to more people experiencing homelessness as folks continue to lose their jobs and fall behind on rent.”

COVID-19 did not just result in the loss of jobs and income, but also the lack of housing for the homeless. Several agencies that assist the homeless population and most shelters are closed due to the pandemic. Right now, the problem of homelessness is urgent because it is getting colder and it will not be safe for people to be outside in the upcoming months; especially with the contagiousness of the virus.

The problem of food insecurity is an immediate concern. During the pandemic, the Office of Homeless Services provided 1,046,361 meals in shelters and had 3,070 new clients come in to get food.

Many organizations, like the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP) are working with people at the encampment. They’re handing out meals, finding temporary residences for them , and working with them to stay safe and healthy.

“A lot of shelters right now are closed because of COVID and because we are working now exclusively on building housing and buying housing and we’re also putting people up in hotels, but trying as much as possible to keep people safe during the pandemic. And so that means trying to cut down on communal living, like inside shelters or a buildings where people don’t have the ability to social distance…” said Stephanie Sena, Founder and Executive Director of SREHUP and Villinova Professor.

Agencies are working together to build housing such as Tiny House Villages, to purchase buildings, and to help put people up in hotels as a response to coronavirus and the need to stay distanced and healthy.

“We’re working everyday to solve the problem of homelessness and increase the inventory of affordable housing in Philadelphia because that’s really the problem and if we don’t tackle the problem of affordable housing, we’re going to continue to see more and more people out on the street,” said Sena.

Over the past six months, the Office of Homeless Services provided emergency shelter for 7,316 people. People of color have been left with inadequate pay, leading to extreme poverty and eventually homelessness in Philadelphia. African Americans make up 44% of Philly’s population but comprise about 75% of those who experience homelessness (OHS). Recently, OHS has received 35 million dollars to support existing programs as well as creating 900 housing opportunities for the most vulnerable.

Director of OHS, Elizabeth Hersh, noted, “Prioritization for all housing opportunities through OHS are based on assessed vulnerability. With the public health emergency those over age 65 and/or with chronic underlying health conditions are the highest priority followed by disability and long-term homelessness.”

Encampments lead to an easy spread of COVID-19. A big group like this attracted lots of people and the government became involved. The outcome was that they were allowed to remain there while local organizers worked on moving them out to temporary shelters that are going to be safer for them to stay while COVID-19 passes.

“We think that housing is the solution and not necessarily shelter. Especially right now during COVID because shelter space where people are all living together is where COVID can spread really quickly so we’re trying to buy houses and build tiny house villages to house people and get them off the streets and into housing,” Sena commented.

In order to make a true difference in housing, the work that has been started during COVID needs to continue as well as planning to help those in need in the future. Giving your time and money to organizations can have a big impact.

“People who are concerned about homelessness should do two things: contribute time and money to existing, nonprofits whose mission is to address homelessness; and use the political process,” Hersh emphasizes.

Changing federal policy is also crucial to helping solve the problem of homelessness, which plagues Philadelphia. Sena highlights, “I think that the cause of homelessness has to do with our policies that are structurally inequitable and so we need to adjust our policies and take back our democracy and really increase equity for people who are struggling and also for people who are predominantly black, who are harmed the most by our unequal policies.”