Head count finds number of homeless on Philly streets continues growing

Monique Taylor interviews a homeless man near Headhouse Square for the 2018 homeless census on Jan. 25, 2018.

Monique Taylor interviews a homeless man near Headhouse Square for the 2018 homeless census on Jan. 25, 2018. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The number of people living on Philadelphia streets continued to rise this year, increasing 10 percent over last year, according to the results of the city’s annual count.

Volunteers canvassing the streets during the early morning hours at the end of January found 1,020 people living out in the cold, about 100 more than last year. But that’s a smaller increase than last year, when the city’s street homeless population shot up by 32 percent.

The director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services, Liz Hersh, said the city’s efforts to help people addicted to opioids get off the streets is slowing down that trend.

The city is adapting shelters to better serve people in active addiction, Hersh said, “making it so that they don’t have to be clean and sober, they don’t have to have ID, they just have to want to be there, and basically be good citizens once they’re inside.”

Adding more beds in shelters that take people in before they start treatment makes it possible to serve this difficult-to-reach population, Hersh said. These shelters, such as a 40-bed respite that opened at Prevention Point last year, also help connect people to addiction treatment and social services that can help them get back on their feet. The Prevention Point shelter served 160 people last year, Hersh said, and 40 percent of them either went into treatment or found housing.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget proposal includes an additional $2 million to fund programs for homeless people struggling with opioid addiction over the next year. Hersh said that would mean opening 80 more beds at two new shelters catering to the large population of homeless drug users in the Kensington neighborhood.

It would also create 60 more units of permanent supportive housing for people with severe substance-use issues who need help living independently.

As a whole, Philadelphia is moving toward a system that invests more resources in finding permanent homes such as these, Hersh said, rather than adding more capacity in emergency shelters. She said that’s helped reduce the city’s overall homeless population, which includes people staying in shelters as well as those on the street. This year’s overall count won’t be ready until next month, but it dropped 7 percent last year.

Marsha Cohen, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project, said the new focus on helping people into permanent homes has had some unintended consequences.

“While we agree with this approach, it has been problematic for the many individuals and families who have literally nowhere to go and for whom there are no shelter beds available on any given night,” Cohen said.

Cohen said that single moms and their kids are often separated when they can’t find room in a shelter. The kids are sometimes taken in by family or friends, while their mom may have nowhere else to turn but the street.

But over the long term, Cohen said, the city’s strategy of focusing on creating affordable housing opportunities could help free up space in shelters for those families.

Hersh said that families with children represent about half of the city’s homeless population.

“We’ll add shelter beds if we have to,” Hersh said. “But, really and truly, the growth has to be in permanent housing for people. That’s the answer.”

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