This story is from Young, Unhoused and Unseen, a podcast production from WHYY News and Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting.
A group of leaders dedicated to reducing homelessness in Philadelphia is changing hands as incidents of homelessness in the region tick upward.
For one of these leaders, job changes are partly prompted by a desire to do more.
“It hurts my soul. I have to do what I can,” said Liz Hersh, who is the former executive director of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services (OHS).
A group of neatly stacked boxes hint at Hersh’s final week at OHS.
That fall day, Hersh, who had been with OHS for about eight years, was busy meeting with staff to hand over the reins to her interim successor, David Holloman. Her to-do list was nearly all checked off.
“There’s my boxes all packed up ready to go to my car today,’ she said, waving her hand toward the corner of the office. “Trying to deal with my emotions and… say goodbye to people.”
A smattering of mementos, cards, and papers were laid on her desk.
The former director is now with Community Solutions, a national nonprofit organization that partners with cities across the U.S. to curb homelessness. Hersh reassured that although she is leaving the city office, she will not be leaving the region.
She was raised in Philadelphia and holds dear the lessons she learned from childhood into adulthood.
“I grew up here in the ‘60s and ‘70s, during [the] Civil Rights,” she recalled.
In grade school, Hersh remembered seeing racism and inequality play out in real-time. She said that when confronted with the realities of economic and racial injustice, she felt she had to do something.
“In my 20s, I literally could not sleep unless I was doing something and even today … walking into the office and I see the folks who are out there who are homeless,” she added.
Homeless advocacy work has been a part of Hersh’s career trajectory for over 20 years. She began working at the Housing Alliance of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that advocated for affordable housing and support for low-income families. The lessons she learned from the leaders in her previous role informed how she approached work in homelessness.
When she was hired as OHS director in 2016, her goal was to build a network among business leaders, providers, and “anybody who has a stake in this,” she told WHYY News in 2016.
Her first plan of action was to rebrand, changing the name from the Office of Supportive Housing.
“That doesn’t mean anything to a lot of people,” she explained. “I felt it was really important that we acknowledge that this is a real issue and that we have to name it and claim it.”
During her nearly eight-year tenure with OHS, she focused on expanding and building more support networks for people experiencing homelessness.
One such program was One Day At a Time, a center that provides addiction recovery, homeless outreach, HIV, workforce, and other services.
One Day at a Time’s president, Mel Wells, called Hersh his “top mentor.” She taught him how to do outreach for unhoused communities, spending time on the streets and the subway in the middle of the night. “At 4 a.m.,” Wells said, laughing.
But what he remembers most fondly is the day Hersh told him OHS would be funding his organization. He recalled crying the minute she told him.
“As an ex-offender, she trusted me,” Wells said.
That investment, he said, made it possible for him to hire more outreach staffers, one of whom has since gotten a Master’s degree. Although he is sad about her departure from OHS he sees it like this:
“It kinda like your best auntie moving out of town,” he said. “She’s like family to me.”
She also initiated programming for the rising number of unhoused youth aged 18-24. The need is great for families with children and youth who grow up with nowhere to go, which worsened during the pandemic.
Some providers in the area were vocal about those gaps of need, such as SELF Inc. (Strengthening Lives Empowering Futures), and called OHS to task.
“There were many times we didn’t agree with OHS, Liz and her team but despite that Liz was never disagreeable. She was always listening, she was always concerned,” said Quibila Divine the chief program office of SELF.
Despite that, Divine said she felt a camaraderie with Hersh.
“We called each other queen,” Divine said. “We understood that each of us were passionate about getting the work done.”
Looking back, city peers like Nora Eisenhower say these efforts were successful. That was particularly true during the pandemic. As the public health crisis swept the city, Hersh and her team showed up to the office every day.
“I will long remember her kindness and ability to manage the bureaucracy of modern life,” Eisenhower said.
One of OHS’s achievements was Shared Spaces, a partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority that sought to rehab vacant houses to increase housing opportunities for those in need.
She and her team were also able to set in motion a collaborative effort among business, hospitality, and civic leaders. The effort established a fund called PHLCares, whereby any money raised is used to build more permanent supportive housing.
According to the city’s most recent Point-in-Time data, the number of unhoused people across the board decreased by 22% between 2018 and 2022, while permanent housing inventory increased by 9%.
Hersh said this is a testament to her teammates — in and out of the office — seeing unhoused people with humanity and being intentional about the search for solutions.
Her successor, David Holloman, agreed.
More notably, Philadelphia’s OHS is considered a national model for major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.
Hersh put forth what she called “bite-sized,” strategic efforts to chip away at the larger issue at hand. That included working with Holloman, who worked closely with her during the past seven years. In 2016, he was the director of external affairs, and in 2019, he was promoted to chief of staff.
“I appreciated her drive to get things done,” Holloman said. “One of the quotes that I would never forget, and I’ll always take with is, ‘If homelessness is not a crisis, what is?”
That passion motivates him to use his experiences as a case manager at the Mental Health Association to build on Hersh’s legacy. He calls himself a “people’s person” and said he intends to take what she taught him about leaning into uncomfortable conversations and push for new solutions.
“I’m looking to just expand upon that and, like the late John Lewis say, be good trouble,” he added.
Over the next several months, Holloman will serve as interim director. The new city administration has not formally announced a permanent hire, but previous Mayor Jim Kenney lauded Hersh for transforming systems and “setting the stage” for the future.
“Everybody does their piece, and then you pass the baton,” Hersh said, crediting her successor. “It’s time.”
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