“There are so many little things that a lot of people don’t know about,” says Brigette Fleming of being homeless. “It’s like a city within a city, if you don’t know the right hand shake you don’t get in.”
She laughs. A camera snaps what she says are the first pictures taken of her in years.
Since 2004, Fleming has been collecting notes about well over 70 organizations that cater to homeless people across the city of Philadelphia – notes from an insider’s perspective. Mostly she looks at soup kitchens and churches but also some places where people can receive free medical help, legal aid, clothing, toiletries and the like. It’s a survival guide for people who find themselves on the streets. She calls it, “Better Living with Dignity.”
“Even though you’re homeless you do have dignity,” she says. “A lot of organizations are set up to take that away from you.”
Her directory is more than a list of established organizations; it has minute details like “must bring ID” or “hot meal on Sundays and free telephone use” that can make a real difference for someone on the edge. Fleming even checks up on the sites from time to time to make sure they still offer the services they have promised. And after all these years, she finds the list of services keeps growing.
Some places better than others
Fleming says in her home neighborhood of Germantown it’s hard to go hungry. “You can go into St Vincent’s and receive food almost every day, legal help, medical help, and they help you find housing.”
Not every organization is that good, however, and she will only list places that she feels are the best. “Some places only want the money, but at Mercy Hospice, a woman can go and have an afternoon meal every day and on Wednesdays [she] can take a nice shower,” she said.
Fleming says eventually she wants to create a website to help homeless or formerly homeless people give feedback on the services that are dotted around Philadelphia. She sees that kind of open critique as a way to help improve the city’s survival network.
“I thought if I could compile it, then have it be interactive where people can go to a computer and give a rating on a shelter or how the food is at one of the soup kitchens, it would help,” she said. “Maybe through our eyes, we can help form a better structure at these places.”
Fleming knows that having a plan about where to go for help once you find yourself on the streets can mean the difference between being homeless for 6 months, or in her case, over 6 years. She hopes her guide will help others form that plan.
It doesn’t take much
Her first time being homeless was completely unexpected. She had been living in Germantown for years. She had a high school diploma and a secretarial job.
“I had worked most of my life to make sure [my son] had a better opportunity,” she said.
Then In 2000, after her son had graduated form college and moved out of Philadelphia, her company downsized due to a merger and she lost her job.
“I fell apart,” she said. “I thought I could do it on my own but the next thing I knew I was on the street.”
Fleming says she was too ashamed to tell her family or ask for help from friends and she fell into a deep depression. She slept on a bench in Logan Square for years. No address meant no mail, which for Fleming meant no possibility for a job, and the hole just kept getting deeper.
Once, while getting money for food from an ATM in Center City she was attacked from behind. She suffered a blow to the head from a rock. “I was walking down Broad Street bleeding from the back of my head and no one would help,” she said.
By the time she got to a hospital she was covered in blood and the hole was so deep the doctors could see into her skull.
“At that point I knew God had his hands on me,” she said. But after the staff realized she was homeless they discharged her. “They put six staples in my head, gave me some aspirin and sent me out at 3 a.m. back out in the streets.”
Eventually, Fleming went to a shelter and, from there, found a job as a security officer. That lasted until a slip on the ice left her with a bone fracture that kept her from returning to work. Within a year she was back on the street.
Finding a turning point
Fleming says the biggest stumbling block to finding help in Philadelphia was being a woman and not being an addict.
“A decent, fairly intelligent female over forty out on the street? You aren’t going to find too much,” she said.
Even at shelters Fleming had to go through 12-step drug programs despite never testing positive for drugs. So she fought back with mixed results. “When I would speak for myself, I was being insubordinate, or I was told I had characteristics of a drug addict,” she said.
Finally, after refusing to attend meetings or be drug tested, Fleming was appointed a social worker and things slowly started to get better. “The social worker stood up for me and I found a place that helped me find a job,” she said.
Fleming now teaches basic computer skills courses at her local library. She is still looking for a full time job. Now she’s in touch with family, has grandchildren, and is renting a room in Germantown. She speaks about the importance of having a strong support system, especially friends.
“I think that even if I wanted to go back, my friend Susan wouldn’t let me,” she said. “She’s so encouraging, she helped bring the spark back in me.”
The Better Living with Dignity directory is scheduled to be released to the public by the end of April.