Getting homeless people off of sizzling sidewalks

    Tagging along with outreach workers trying to get people off of Philadelphia streets during the Code Red heat-wave.

    The record-breaking heat wave is expected to continue through Friday in Philadelphia as temperatures remain in the 90’s. For the city, it will mark the fifth day of code red, where more homeless outreach workers head into the streets handing out water and offering shelter beds.
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    Afternoon rush hour on a day where the temperature peaked at 103 degrees, two outreach workers with Project Home are driving through Center City. With 15 years of experience between them their eyes are trained to spot over-dressed homeless people. Then a hotline call comes in.

    “59 north 11th street. What am I looking for? An African American male right across the street from a restaurant, t-shirt and dark shorts. He’s in a wheelchair.”

    James Robinson and Paulina Vorn get a call about a man in a wheelchair at 11th and Arch. But after pulling over in front of the Reading Terminal Market, and speaking with the man, he leaves, uninterested in their help. But a homeless couple comes forward. A man sits in a wheelchair holding a flask, and a woman, who is clearly drunk says they want to come in out of the heat. Vorn gives them some advice about surviving the heatwave.

    “Listen, listen, you listening? It’s really hot and that little drink over there, you gotta dilute it.”

    About a block away on Arch, Robinson spots an elderly man with a bushy white beard lying on the sidewalk.

    “How ya doin’ I’m from Project Home Outreach, you interested in shelter today? Get out of the heat?. Where you stayin’ at? Ever think about goin’ in?”

    The man takes water but refuses shelter. Around the corner on Cuthbert street, another elderly man is hunkered down with milk crates and a bag of possessions strung around his neck. As Robinson speaks, the man opens a switch blade, and points it at him.

    “I’m a get some water and come back and give it to you. Where you from? West Oak Lane?. I’m a get the water.”

    Robinson says the man is overdressed, and he could decide to “302” him. That’s code for having the man arrested and taken to a hospital if he refuses help or shelter on such a hot day.

    Robinson says his job can be stressful but takes the knife in stride. He walks across the street to another man in a wheelchair sitting next to the exit of a parking garage, which sends out a loud warning to pedestrians.

    This time, Robinson convinces the man to accept shelter from the heat.

    “I’m a wait here for your guys, take me somewhere, take me somewhere, where I can rest.”

    Reporter Susan Phillips: “You know it hit 102 yesterday?”

    “Oh it was nice it was peaceful, no one was in the street.”

    Back in the van, Robinson says he knows most of the homeless on his daily beat.

    “I got into this line of work because I needed a job. I stayed with this line of work because I love what I’m doin’. What do you love about it? I love to help people. I love being a voice for a population of people who don’t have a voice. I like to think I’m making a difference.”

    Relief from the heat could come this weekend as the forecast predicts some easing of temperatures. But expect days to be back in the nineties next week.

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