By Erin Flynn Jay Owner at Flynn Media www.flynnmedia.com
Homelessness in the city has turned into a serious crisis and there is not enough being done to address it.
Stephanie Sena, Anti-Poverty Fellow at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, said “ending homelessness is very doable because there are more vacant homes in Philadelphia than there are people experiencing homelessness.” Many of those homes are owned by the city of Philadelphia.
Sena has said that there needs to be greater public awareness of the root causes of poverty and homelessness. A huge part of this is about public awareness, i.e., the role that the media, politicians, teachers, and community members play.
Right now, there’s limited public awareness on purpose. “There are groups in Philadelphia and throughout the country that are tasked with supporting those who are homeless or in poverty. Those agencies are mostly contributing to poverty and homelessness instead of helping the problem or helping solve the problem,” she said. Sena cited the Office of Homeless Services as an example.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) underestimates the number of people who are on the street and overestimates the number of beds they have available. “And then they put that information in the press. So, the press just believes them. They have no reason to think that they’d be lying, but they are lying,” said Sena.
The Office of Homeless Services in Philadelphia is tasked with counting the number of people on the street through a census–volunteers go out into the streets at night and count the number of people who are homeless. In Philadelphia, Sena added the census is incredibly broad–the numbers are being depleted on purpose and part of that is to give the impression that they are doing better with homelessness than they actually are, and that the people who are in charge should be commended.
Many people in power in Philadelphia contribute to the homeless crisis. For example, there’s a lot of land agencies in Philadelphia. “Their job is to take land and redistribute it. They do this in a number of ways. They do this through what’s called eminent domain and eminent domain is used quite a bit in Philadelphia. It’s mostly used to take houses away from people who are poor, especially in places like North Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, and South Philadelphia.”
The city is able to do that by calling the houses blighted, but according to the law, anything really can be considered blighted. “If the house is kind of rundown (a lot of poor people don’t have the resources to fix up their houses), the city can just say that the house is blighted, or the block is blighted and kick people out. And then the city does not pay people or reimburse them the way that they should for the value of their homes. And it creates homelessness.”
Houses for those who have displaced remain vacant (especially in the Sharswood section). The city has boards of directors that decide where this land should go, instead of giving land and housing to people who are poor or homeless, they give it to developers, Sena said.
If you look at a lot of land agencies, there’s a few in Philadelphia–PHA, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), Philadelphia Land Bank and PRA Development & Management Corporation. The boards of these agencies are mostly made up of city council members–some of whom are developers themselves– and other rich developers and banks.
“They get together in a boardroom, and they decide where the land goes; they vote to give it to themselves. There’s a small pocket of very rich and powerful people who have been for many years redistributing resources, land and housing away from people who are poor and to people who are rich. And that’s getting worse all the time,” said Sena.
Only 2 percent of landlords in Philadelphia own over half of the city’s housing. A lot of mom-and-pop landlords in the city own one or two properties. Sena added the reality is that most properties in Philadelphia are owned by the same two corporations. If you try to find out who the wealthy landlords are in Philadelphia, they are actually shell companies that were created in Delaware or as an LLC and you cannot hold these companies accountable because the people who own them are anonymous.
If you have a house in Philadelphia that is vacant or the owner is in violation, if they are rich enough and they own a shell company or their home is registered to a shell company, the city looks the other way. Sena said there’s a lot of that happening in Philadelphia.
In terms of tax, Pennsylvania as a whole is regressive–the people who are the poorest in Philadelphia pay the highest tax rate while the people who are the richest pay the lowest tax rate. “So, the poor people of Pennsylvania are carrying the biggest tax burden. And then what happens is that in Philadelphia a lot of wealthy agencies in Philadelphia are tax exempt,” she added. The universities which own a huge percentage of Philadelphia are completely tax exempt, including Penn, which owns 10% of Philadelphia, Drexel and other universities too as non-profits.
Due to the fact that they’re nonprofits, they don’t owe taxes to the city, but they own a huge part of Philadelphia. “And then we have a tax abatement. So new construction is tax exempt for 10 years. You have a depleted tax base,” she added. “We have very limited dollar resources to help people who are poor, because those resources are mostly going to agencies and people who have money and resources.”
In terms of how to address this main problem, Sena said we must make sure the public is aware that this is what’s happening.
Then, we must reimagine how we organize ourselves as a community. “The rich people think that they can go on like this forever, that this system that they’ve created is sustainable; they are living in some kind of alternate reality. I think that big change is inevitable.”
“When there’s a serious accident on the street or a car crash, people go run to help and people call 911. The attitude about homelessness needs to change; it’s just accepted, and it shouldn’t be,” said David Sherwin, Pivedite founder. “When we see homelessness, we walk by. We need to change our attitude on that.”
In a nice suburb, if anybody saw somebody on the street, there would be an immediate call to 911. That same attitude needs to be switched to the cities.
The city has declared emergencies for various reasons. Sherwin sees declaring a homeless emergency as a way to move things forward.
The structure and the process that was used for COVID can be used towards other society ills, he said. “It’s a combination of ways of people actually finding a place; there’s got to be more low-income housing, safe homeless shelters, and an innovative network of homeless places.”
Like Sena, Sherwin thinks it’s possible and it starts with leadership, whether it’s community and citizen leadership or elected official leadership saying that we’re in a homeless emergency and we are going to end it.
He said it may start with a neighborhood initiative saying we are going to start out with West Philly or a smaller area and end homelessness in this area; that would be piloted and followed in other neighborhoods.
“If COVID made more people homeless, maybe there’s progress because we addressed it more. It’s very complicated, but in broader terms as a society, we have not made any progress,” he added.
What’s the best way to prevent homelessness in the city? Sherwin agrees with Sena; that it’s a complete change of attitude. “It really starts with leadership and creative ways to get homeless people to work.”