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Chuck Jones never imagined that one day he would be homeless.
“I had a pretty good life for a while,” he said.
He previously worked as a caretaker for an elderly woman, and was living in Upper Darby with his dog, Midnight, a black labrador retriever.
Jones describes Midnight as “his world.” He follows him on long walks in the park, interacting with other people, and making each day meaningful.
“He’s like my baby,” Jones said, “I’ve had him since he was six weeks old. Sometimes I tell people, ‘he’s the one who makes sure we walk the straight and narrow.’”
In 2022, Jones was involved in a serious car accident, and his injuries were so severe that he was unable to work.
Unemployed and struggling to maintain rent, he was eventually evicted from his apartment. He had no immediate shelter options, so he resorted to sleeping on the streets.
And his struggles continued. Most shelters in the Philadelphia region will not accept pets, and Jones wouldn’t go anywhere without his beloved dog.
“I was out in the streets on my 65th birthday,” he said.
Jones was still living on the street during February, one of the coldest months of the winter.
Besides his own health, he was concerned about how the frigid temperatures would affect Midnight, who was 11 years old. The last thing he wanted to do was give him up. But his friend was getting weaker.
“It was at a point where I had to tie a towel around his back legs and pick him up to support his back legs while he walked with his front,” he said. And he made a very difficult phone call.
“I called my buddy and I said, ‘You got to come take care of my dog. It just about almost broke my heart,” he said. It’s a telling turn of phrase Jones uses to describe his situation at the time.
He has been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) – a disease that can lead to sudden heart failure. Midnight is more than just his pet. He’s also an emotional support animal and medical alert dog.
But then he heard about one newly opened shelter in Upper Darby called “Breaking Bread” that did accept pets. They only had 17 beds, but Jones was able to claim one of them. He’s also in the process of being rehoused.
“It’s getting closer and closer. I can’t wait,” he said. “I get choked up talking about it.”
‘They’re humans and our neighbors’
Breaking Bread Community opened as the Philadelphia region’s first pet-friendly homeless shelter one year ago, in December of 2022.
The 4,000-square-foot shelter — a converted day-care center — still has only 17 beds, and there are nearly 150 individuals on a waitlist.
Since opening its doors, staff at Breaking Bread have helped 10 residents find permanent housing.
For CEO Stephanie Sena, “10 people is too little,” but with the current housing market climate, stories like Chuck Jones’ offer a hopeful outlook.
“It has exceeded my expectations because I know how high the price of rent is,” she said. “You have people in the county who won’t take housing subsidies or housing vouchers. You have landlords who are raising rents regularly.”
Sena called running the shelter “backbreaking” and “exhausting.” And yet, the need continues to persist.
“Shelters need to be open because we’re seeing a massive increase in homelessness everywhere nationwide,” she said. “We have people dying on the streets, and in a country that is so wealthy, we should not be comfortable allowing our neighbors to live and die on the streets.”
Sena also praised her staff’s efforts, including Jonathan Eady, formerly a resident at Breaking Bread. Eady is now the shelter’s supervisor.
“It took me a while to be comfortable enough to knock on the door and actually ask for help,” he said. “But when I did I felt a sense of warmth – like of welcoming.”
Eady said that helping unhoused people has become his calling. During his time at Breaking Bread, he has helped several people find housing. He even helps them get their keys.
“Just to share in a person’s joy and happiness, you know when they’re able to put in the footwork to help themselves climb out of a situation like this,” he said, “it’s really gratifying, and it’s really humbling.”
Just 1 missed paycheck away
Like Chuck Jones, Charles Petherbridge – a native of Yeadon, Pa. – was also recently living in his own apartment before experiencing homelessness. He was one of Breaking Bread’s earliest residents.
Petherbridge has been working at Goodwill in Haverford Township for eight years, trying to make ends meet, but rising rents and low income quickly put him on a path toward homelessness.
“And it’s been like that off and on,” he said. “Right now I’m still looking for a place.”
He said his story is a cautionary tale of what homelessness looks like.
“It’s a misconstrued idea that all homeless have alcohol, drug addictions and everything like that,” he said. “I work for a living, and I’m homeless.”
But finding a place he can afford has been a challenge for Petherbridge.
“I think they should have a cap on how high the rent can go in the state of Pennsylvania, and I wish they would do it,” he said. “There’s tons of empty buildings not just in Delaware County but Philadelphia as well that you can send a team into to see if it’s structurally sound. Refurbish it for low-income housing people, instead of letting them be on the street.”
‘We will love our neighbors, and we won’t stop’
In 2024, Stephanie Sena is hoping to fulfill her commitment to expanding the shelter’s space.
“Our original plan was to close in April to start renovation,” she said.
In January, plans called for the construction of the building’s first, second, and third floors. The renovations were to include a full office space, an elevator to meet the needs of wheelchair accessibility, and adding 13 more beds.
These plans stalled as funding needs were diverted to other areas. But going into the New Year, Sena has more ambitious goals in mind, including buying a space next door, which was formerly a doctor’s office.
“This doctor was incredible as a community member who would help people who were unhoused or without insurance,” she said. “If we are able to purchase the building next door and then fully renovate our building here, we could be looking at a total of a hundred people which would make a dent in the waitlist.”
Sena emphasized that shelters are not an ultimate fix to the bigger issue of homelessness.
“It’s not the solution,” she said, “but it’s working to be part of the solution. We will love our neighbors, and we won’t stop.”
For Charles Petherbridge and Chuck Jones, Breaking Bread Community is a gift they will never forget.
“After I get housed, if anything happens to where I come into a stroke of luck, I’m gonna send it back down here to the people of Breaking Bread,” Petherbridge said. “Because that way it’ll help out more people.”
Jones is grateful not to have been separated from his companion and to be able to get Midnight into a warm and comfortable place.
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