Four years later, student-run shelter serves Philly’s most vulnerable homeless

Listen
 University students volunteer at the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia from November through April. (Katie Hiler/WHYY)

University students volunteer at the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia from November through April. (Katie Hiler/WHYY)

Four years ago, Villanova University professor Stephanie Sena stood inside an empty room in the basement of Philadelphia’s Arch Street United Methodist Church, describing her vision for the city’s first student-run homeless shelter.

Today, that room is buzzing with activity every night — serving the city’s most vulnerable population of homeless men.

The doors of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia — also known as SREHUP — open every evening at 7.  Down in the kitchen, Sena directs a group of volunteers while holding trays of food; she’s like a flustered but capable parent trying to wrangle her brood and get dinner on the table.

But commanding a small army of student volunteers was part of Sena’s dream all along.

“I get really excited to see it as a reality,” she said.

Nearly 150 students from seven area universities volunteer at the venue from November through April, allowing the shelter to run on just $30,000 a year — about a 10th of the cost of other shelters in Philadelphia.

Sena also wanted to offer services not included at other shelters. For example, once a month the barbers from Richard Nicholas Hair Studio on Sansom Street drop by to give the men haircuts. On a recent night, Dennis stepped up for a long-awaited shave.

“I like having my hair cut,” said Dennis. “I like keeping my hygiene and my grooming up.”

Dennis, who has been at the shelter a little over two months, is getting ready to move into a home of his own. He had been considered chronically homeless, as are all the men SREHUP serves overnight.  The men leave each morning at 7 — many of them go the library — and return 12 hours later for a meal and a place to sleep.

But what’s unique is that the same men return all winter long, giving them an opportunity to connect with services they need to get back on their feet. SREHUP has served more than 200 men since it opened four years ago.

“We pride ourselves on the environment here and the sense of community, which means that people who are ordinarily shelter-resistant choose to come here and they choose to stay here,” said Sena. “And once they’re here we can really help them with the services that they need.”

The shelter’s only employees are two bodyguards who once were homeless.

Otherwise, the students make up the shelter’s core group of volunteers.

Second-year med student Eliza Reed doesn’t have a lot of free time on her hands, but said she doesn’t mind donating some of it to SREHUP. Even volunteering at the shelter has changed the way Reed thinks about her career in medicine.

“I didn’t initially set out for that, but I definitely have an appreciation for management of care now,” she said.

Like many of the student volunteers, Reed said she’s gotten more out of the experience than she expected.

“These guys do a lot for us,” she said. “They can tell if you’ve had a bad day. One of the gentlemen will come up and give me a hug every time I come in. It’s just nice.”

“I’ve been blessed with so many opportunities, like why can’t you take three hours of your life and do something nice?” said Reed.

Even if that something is washing dishes.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.