April 20-26, 2006
Cover StoryHill, No
Why the city's $10 million plan to end homelessness is giving Chestnut Hill nightmares
: Michael T. Regan
In a neighborhood physically set off from the rest of the city, both by a steep hill and a deep gorge, local leaders were busy gearing up for springtime. The annual garden festival was on the horizon, and the biggest gripe seemed to be the looming eyesore that Commerce Bank left when it all but demolished a building near the northern boundary of the Germantown Avenue business corridor.
Then came word that Laddie wouldn't be a novelty much longer.
As part of its 10-year, $10 million plan to end homelessness, the city was looking to open a 150-bed shelter in neighboring Mt. Airy, less than half a mile from the entrance to the rambling mix of precious antique shops and chain retailers at the heart of a business revitalization effort, and one city block from the quiet, tree-lined streets fat with $750,000 homes.
In Chestnut Hillwhere scandal is always just a curb cut or a neon sign awayall bets were off. Residents and merchants alike started to think in terms of Laddies. Lots of them. With few details about the shelter proposal out in the open, community power brokers began getting phone calls. Before long they decided that, as local ward leader John O'Connell put it, "It sounds like something that shouldn't occur here." Meanwhile, Mt. Airy residents seemed to be concerned more with the city's proposed partner in the shelter venturea neighborhood churchthan they were with the idea of homeless people living in their own backyard. It was a whole different story, one that would catch city officials off guard, and signal the latest in a series of neighborhood challenges to the Street administration's embattled homeless plan.
The praise, most homeless advocates agree, was deserved. The number of people living on the street in Center City dropped dramatically, from more than 800 in 1998 to less than 400 last fall.
Then, in October 2005, in order to compete for a $2 million federal funding bonus for its homeless programs, the city, like hundreds of communities around the country, unveiled a 10-year plan to end homelessness, which in part called for the construction of 600 new units of subsidized housing, in addition to another 100 beds for the chronically homeless.
The celebration continued until this past winter, when the city's homeless population suddenly hit a 10-year seasonal high. According to a quarterly census taken by the advocacy group Project H.O.M.E., 237 people were living on the streets of Center City on Jan. 26, up from 132 on the same date last year. Both counts were conducted on frigid "code blue" nights, meaning either that the windchill was below 20 degrees or that there was precipitation combined with subfreezing temperatures, says Kristen Edwards, the group's program manager. Rob Hess, the outgoing deputy managing director in charge of city homeless services, attributes the increase to Philadelphia's real estate boom, soaring utility costs and static job growth. "I think people are poorer today than at any time since the Great Depression," he says. "People are being forced out of the housing market."
On any given night, more than 3,000 homeless men, women and children live in the city's emergency shelters. Hundreds encounter a system stretched well beyond its limits, operating at 115 percent capacity, with officials routinely turning to local hotel rooms to compensate for the shortage of shelter beds. And for the second straight year, more of them are women with children. In fact, while other segments of the homeless population have remained relatively static, the number of female-headed families entering homelessness is up 10 percent over last year. They now account for about half of the city's homeless population, says Hess.
Perpetually short on transitional and permanent housing, the Office of Emergency Shelter and Servicesthe city's lead agency on homelessnesshas shifted direction, proposing a number of residential training facilities that would give women the job skills and education they need to move both themselves and their children out of homelessness.
But six months into Mayor Street's $10 million plan, city officials are finding it a tough sell. The initiative has been met with varying degrees of opposition in at least four different neighborhoodsUniversity City, Logan, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hillsince last August.
Last October, Street acknowledged the political difficulties of selling homeless shelters to prospective neighbors. Success, he said, would depend on the city building community support. At the press conference, Hess added, "The issue for the public is: Do you want people living on your streets, or do you want them living in shelters?"
While the public may favor shelters, the hard truth is that they don't want to see them in their own backyards. For instance, last February, as rumors about a homeless shelter in Mt. Airy started swirling, community groups fielded frantic calls from residents. Laura Siena, executive director of West Mt. Airy Neighbors, said she spoke with a man from Chestnut Hill who wanted to know why her group hadn't come out against the shelter proposal yet. Similar calls followed. A month later, about 200 residentsfrom both neighborhoodspacked an auditorium at the Lutheran Theological Seminary to hear the city's plans for a residential training facility that would house up to 50 homeless families on the sprawling 38-acre campus of New Covenant Church in the 7500 block of Germantown Avenue. The reception was anything but friendly.
Siena says she fired a warning shot across the city's bow a week before the community meeting, in a phone call to Hess.
"Your problem is not going to be homeless people in Mt. Airy," she told him. "Your problem is going to be New Covenant."
: Michael T. Regan
Despite their best efforts, they say, Benton and her two dozen neighbors on Gowen Avenueall with backyards bordering the New Covenant Church campuswould play captive audience to the sounds of salvation every Friday and Saturday for the better part of two years. "It was a huge imposition on a lot of people's lives," says Benton. "Even in my own house, with every window and door closed, I could not escape it."
She complained to the West Mt. Airy Neighbors civic association, which formed a committeeBenton chaired itto deal with the issue. It took months to get a meeting with the church, she says, and when both parties finally sat down, neighbors found New Covenant officials to be "hostile." Not only did the noise continue, but the church pastor announced plans to expand the program. Neighbors, she says, were told by the church to keep "noise logs" and to call security if a problem arose. Marc Stier, president of West Mt. Airy Neighbors at the time, says he had to threaten to veto any of the church's future development proposals that would need community support in front of the city zoning board, to get an audience with New Covenant. "They were impossible," he says.
Fourteen meetings and innumerable unreturned phone calls later, Benton says the noise abated, but only after the church pastor stepped down. "It took years to accomplish some very simple things," she says. "Their failure to understand our concerns and act was not only disrespectful but unconscionable. It felt like they were spitting in our faces." (By press time, New Covenant did not respond to our requests for a comment.)
At last month's community meeting, New Covenant was the issue. And, once again, Hess was taking questions from an angry crowd, just as he had the previous August during a similar meeting at West Philadelphia High School. Residents felt they were being fleeced by the city. "There is no deal. There is nothing in writing," Hess told the audience. "This is very much a work in progress." He quickly moved to assure the crowd that the proposed shelter would not disrupt their community. City shelters, he said, "are good neighbors. They have to be. If they weren't, we'd be reading about them in the paper every morning."
Two programs, dubbed Families Forward I and II, would enroll 25 female-headed households each. Both would focus on preparing mothers for employment, and, in turn, independent living. Participants, he said, would be recruited from the more than 500 families already living in the city's shelter system. Women would be carefully screened and enrollment would be contingent on their agreeing to certain rules and regulations. "This is not some flophouse we're talking about here," Hess said. "What we're talking about is real hope for women and children."
Only those "serious about the business of employment and long-term independence" would be admitted. "We're not about helping people live in emergency shelters," he said. "We create programs that give people real hope and allow them to live independently."
While residents voiced concerns about safety, zoning and the impact on area public schools, the church emerged as the core issue, catching city officials off guard. Resident after resident, with Janet Benton leading the charge, painted New Covenant as a bad neighbor with a long track record of disrespecting the community, from kicking pedestrians off the church campus to refusing to meet with the local civic association.
New Covenant officials blamed the problems on a previous administration. At the outset, perhaps sensing the testimony to come, Ben Ellis, chief operating officer for New Covenant, sought to define the church in part as a catalyst for the economic revitalization that had taken place in Mt. Airy over the last few years. Acknowledging the rift between the church and its neighbors, Ellis said, "We've done a very poor job of letting the community know who we are. ... I'm the first to admit that we need to do a better job of letting residents know we're here."
Still, after two hours, many residents remained unconvinced. "I don't feel that you're really opening yourself to the community," said neighborhood resident Susan Segal. "I think you're just doing it today because you want something."
Bob Elfant, a longtime Mt. Airy resident and local real estate agent, took aim at the city. "I'm offended by being preached to about social responsibility," he said. "This is Mt. Airy. We wrote the book on social responsibility." Moreover, he said, the community already had its fair share of problems with Northwest Human Services, a nearby mental-health and substance-abuse outpatient clinic, without the worry of a homeless facility that he deemed a "warehouse."
Had the community been involved earlier, Siena would say later, "the entire reaction [to the proposal] would have been different."
"A public fight should have been a neighborhood fight. If I had known about the problems, I wouldn't have let it get that far," says Blackwell, who has since rejected the Street administration's desire to place the shelter in her district. "I will always go with the majority opinion [of my constituents]."
Now, due in part to Hess' determination, another program for the site is on the table, one that would service senior citizens on fixed incomes. While a formal proposal is still months away, Blackwell says the programrun by Pennis getting a much rosier reception from her constituents, which begs the question of what happens to the needs of more vulnerable segments of the homeless population: single mothers and their children. Blackwell says the city's plan to end homelessness is still feasible, but depends on better communication. "It's not what we do," she says. "It's how we do it."
Many residents still think of homeless shelters as invitations to blight and decline, she says. Unlike the "warehousing" of yesteryear, residential training programs that aim to end homelessness, not manage itlike the one being proposed for Mt. Airyshould prove more attractive to local skeptics, she says.
"We've come a long way," says Blackwell. "It's a whole different world. New days call for new ways."
Such was the case earlier this year in the city's Logan section, where officials brokered a compromise with residents who were wary of the city's plan to place an emergency homeless shelter in a building that already houses a charter school and daycare center, according to Melody Wright, spokeswoman for City Councilwoman Marian Tasco, whose district includes the site. Instead, the city will likely open a 100-bed shelter for homeless women and children, complete with social support services, says Hess. Wright says residents, many of whom have felt spurned by city bureaucracy for years, fought for the "right mix" of tenants for both the building and the neighborhood.
: Michael T. Regan
It's a rainy Friday morning and center director Bill Burns is gearing up for his weekly community meeting. He dumps some cold, day-old coffee into a Styrofoam cup, takes a sip and heads to the lobby. "This could really work," he says. "Or it could be complete failure." Today is a break from the routine, which, at a place like Woodstock, is a big deal. Its residents are homeless mothers, 65 in all, struggling to mend broken livesboth for themselves and for their children. The challenge, says Burns, is getting them to talk about it, thus this morning's experiment in giving voice to emotion.
As the women form a circle in a first-floor classroom, Burns distracts their kids with some drawing paper and crayons. They're a tough crowd. About 30 percent of Woodstock mothers are victims of domestic violence and most, says Burns, have experienced some sort of abuse or trauma in their own families growing up.
A woman named Lisa begins. A recovering addict, she's just moved here from another shelter because of a fight with her boyfriend. Her goal, she says, is to stay clean so she can care for her children. More than a dozen women follow. There's laughter and tears and everything in between.
Nearly everyone has something to say about housing, and after the meeting, Renee, a 23-year-old mother of five, with another on the way next month, is first in line to do something about it. She and her two daughters came to Woodstock a couple weeks ago, leaving the other three kids with her husband and her mother-in-law. She's homeless because her own mother turned her away, she says. ("She's not the mother that I thought she'd at least try to be," she says. "I never really had her. Her daughter is down and out with nowhere to go and she closes me out.") And her mother-in-law, she says, wasn't much better. ("We shredded heads a lot," she says. "I got fed up. The woman is crazy.")
Pregnant at 16, Renee dropped out of high school, and she's been trying to go back ever since. After a few false starts she completed business and nursing courses but couldn't graduate without her GED. And when she found that a babysitter had neglected her daughter, Renee decided to be a full-time mom. That was two years ago. "I'm a busy pregnant woman," she says. "It's not easy at all."
Everybody agrees we need more services for the homeless, especially the women and children. But that doesn't mean anybody wants shelters in their neighborhood.
"NIMBYism is a real problem," says Ed Speedling, community liaison for Project H.O.M.E. "Before things get too far along, the community has to be involved in a dialogue. Homelessness is not a problem in just one part of town. All sections of this city have to face it."
Perhaps few know this better than City Councilman Darrell Clarke, who, during a budget hearing last month, objected to what he considers a disproportionate share of homeless shelters in his Fifth Council District, which includes North Philadelphia.
"At some point I'm going to start pushing back," he told city homeless services officials. "If people enter homelessness from all over the city, it's inappropriate for there to be sections that don't have supportive services. It would be more prudent to have facilities in the neighborhoods where people originally lived."
Hess says he shares Clarke's view but that sometimes it's a no-win situation, regardless of a good-faith effort on the city's part.
"We get criticized no matter what we do with these things," he says. "There's always opposition. That tends to be people's first reaction. Is it easy to overcome these things? No. Is it easier when people are willing to sit down and have a real discussion with you and try to work toward real solutions, as opposed to being biased against you before you even get there? Yes."
Still, some contend that the city's lack of community outreach set the stage for a conflict and could ultimately damn an otherwise worthy proposal. At-large City Councilman Frank Rizzo says that both the Street administration and the city's department of human services should have given Council advance warning about the Mt. Airy shelter proposal. It "was a surprise to me and it was a surprise to the community," says Rizzo, who lives in nearby Chestnut Hill. "Their approach has damaged this project."
When Rizzo first heard about it in February, he took a wait-and-see attitude. "The word homeless isn't a dirty word," he told the Inquirer
. "Let's find out what it's about. We've got to make sure we represent everyone." Since then, he's heard from plenty of his neighbors. "A lot of people don't want it," says Rizzo. "They're very concerned about the impact on the neighborhood."
Most troubling, Rizzo says, is the apparent longstanding disconnect between the community and the church. "They've got me on guard when it could have been a good thing to talk about," he says.
Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, who represents the district, says that while she was aware of the problem she thought both parties had resolved their differences years ago. "I was a little surprised," she said of the testimony at the community meeting. Ironically, she says, the New Covenant site used to host Mt. Airy Day, an annual neighborhood festival that brings the community together, before it was purchased by the church in 1993. Miller says she'll convene a series of smaller meetings this month and that a community advisory council is in the works.
But some local leaders say they're feeling the heat from City Hall in light of a failed campaign for a similar program in University City. "A lot of people feel that the mayor's office is pushing hard for this to happen," says John O'Connell, Democratic leader of the 9th Ward, which includes the site. "If residents don't want it, they're going to have to fight hard."
The proposal, he says, is emblematic of the city's "Band-Aid approach" toward homelessness. The ward leader and real estate agent says he sees permanent low-income housing as more "proactive" and "dignified" than the proposed dormitory-style shelter. "It sounds like something that shouldn't occur here," says O'Connell. "I don't think it's a good way to spend city money."
In Chestnut Hill, some residents fear that a shelter would not only taint an upscale, solid neighborhood, but also harm the local business community, O'Connell says. "Some worry that homeless people will be roaming Germantown Avenue making shoppers feel uncomfortable," he says. Still, O'Connell concedes that such fears are the byproduct of stereotypes: panhandlers and addicts, not women and children.
"There's no nice way to say you don't want a homeless shelter in your neighborhood," says O'Connell. "There's a need out there. It's just a question of how you service it."
In Mt. Airy, residents have tried to distance themselves from their Chestnut Hill neighbors. "We really do like to be welcoming to everybody," says Siena, "but we're not going to welcome a homeless program that looks like warehousing, or something that's of poor quality. New Covenant has had over a decade to prove that they're a good and respectful neighbor. They haven't."
Most residents, she says, feel that the scope of the city's proposal is too large50 families in alland would like to see it halved.
Derek Green, president of East Mt. Airy Neighbors, agrees. "I think it's a very large proposal for an entity that hasn't done this type of work in the past."
Residents like Janet Benton plan to proceed with caution. "Believe me, I thought of the whole NIMBY thing. I asked myself, "Am I going to be like that?'" says Benton. "It's different when it's actually in your backyard. I don't feel like it's my place to say no to something that's going to help people, but there's a need for the community to be involved."
Last week, however, questions about continuity were raised when it was announced that Hess would be resigning in early May to become commissioner of the Homeless Services Department in New York City. (There, he faces a much larger problem. About 31,000 people stay in New York shelters each night, more than 10 times that of Philadelphia's homeless population.)
"I had no intention of doing anything other than staying with [Mayor Street] until the end of his term," says Hess. That changed, he says, with a phone call from New York last month. A member of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's transition team offered Hess the top job there, he says, based on his experience of building a strong infrastructure to combat homelessness in Philadelphia over the last five years. Bloomberg has set a goal of reducing homelessness by two-thirds by the time he leaves office in 2009. "Every now and then you see an opportunity that you just have to try," says Hess. (A replacement has not been named.)
His departure, he insists, won't have "any significant impact" on the city's efforts, including the Mt. Airy proposal. "I don't see the mayor's vision or the city's goals changing even a little bit. ... I know that Philadelphia will not step back one inch. It will keep moving forward to end the need for people to live on the city streets."
Still, in his five years as homeless czar, Hess has had his critics.
Phyllis Ryan, executive director of the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness (PCEH), is at the top of the list. Her group, which is completely funded by private sector money in an effort to minimize its entanglement with city politics, has been sharply critical of the city's homeless efforts, particularly its 10-year plan. "It's not a plan. It's a description. There's nothing there. The real deal at the street level is that nothing is happening."
Ryan says the city should concentrate all its resources to pursue a housing-first strategy. Three months ago, through a partnership with Friends Neighborhood Guild, PCEH helped find and finance housing for 19 homeless families at a cost of less than $5,000 per family, says Ryan, whereas the city would have spent $24,000. Her group also connected those parents to existing support services like job training and employment programs. Ryan is hoping for a repeat with another 20 families over the next two months.
The housing-first strategy, she says, is less costly and more effective than the wide-ranging network of programs in the city shelter system. "It just makes sense," says Ryan. "I've yet to see somebody who doesn't want their own place."
While Ryan concedes that some programsparticularly Horizon House and Ready, Willing and Ablehave produced impressive results, she says that on the whole "the city is not good at running residential programs."
"Institutional life is still institutional life. It's not a positive impact," she says. "You can have a good program but it's not necessarily the answer to the problem."
"Frankly, in this business, there isn't any one-size-fits-all," he says. "You need a whole variety of programs and let people gravitate toward one that appeals to them."
The city's homeless effort has made great strides in five short years, says Hess, most notably in the number of people living on the streets of Center City, from more than 800 at the outset of the Street administration to less than 150 late last month, an unprecedented reduction for a major American city. And his office will continue to redefine the system, he says, making emergency shelters points of entry, not destination. New models like the residential training program slated for Mt. Airy are the future, he says. "If all we do is create beds, then in another five years we'll be having the same discussion," says Hess. "It would not upset me if we never opened another traditional shelter bed."
Despite some snags, Hess is optimistic. After all, there are 120 units of permanent housing in the pipeline for this year. "We have a lot more work to do," he says. "But at the end of the day, we're not standing still and we're not having our confidence shaken. We're moving forward."
What about those resistant residents?
"In my view, sometimes "no' means "not now,'" says Hess. "There's always another opportunity, another program, another day."