By Jenna Song, Contributing Editor
Philadelphia had a total of 5,634 people experiencing homelessness in 2020. Out of that number, 958 people are on the street without any shelter. The homeless community is a vulnerable group that has a greater chance of being exposed to the pandemic due to their unstable housing situation and disconnection to resources.
Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services has been working closely with various federal departments within the city to coordinate COVID testing and to secure shelter spaces throughout the pandemic.
City officials announced they moved residents out of the COVID Prevention Hotels due to federal Coronavirus Relief Funds expiring in December 2020. Every resident is partnered with a housing case manager to work towards a long-term housing option.
Unfortunately, the Philadelphia homeless community has been suffering even more due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter and a meal supplier based in Center City, had to cut down their shelter capacity, but they never stopped providing beds for those who are in need.
The facility reduced their bed capacity to be able to practice social distancing correctly as early as March when the city first announced COVID guidelines. They invested in more high-tech cleaning products like foggers this past summer in June.
Decreasing bed spaces wasn’t an easy decision. They were overwhelmed with people trying to avoid cold nights on the street.
“We were at full capacity within our facility because we were included as a part of the city’s winter initiative, where we have a separate dormitory specifically for code blue, as well as, individuals coming in just before the night when it’s cold,” said Jeremy Montgomery, president of Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission.
They also suffered a COVID outbreak within their facility last May due to their shelter serving as a quarantine shelter for individuals that came in contact with someone who contracted the virus. By early June, they had a total of 57 positive COVID cases including their staff and shelter guests.
The facility currently has 185 beds open out of 260 beds. Despite having available beds, only 48 beds were filled on the night of Jan. 21 as the fear of COVID is spreading over the homeless community.
Montgomery explained that homeless individuals aren’t ignorant or naive to the pandemic. A lot of them are choosing to avoid shelters since there’s a general concern in the community that shelters are dangerous to utilize during the pandemic.
The facility required COVID testing before anyone entered the facility through last June to September. While they no longer require any testing, they continue to follow their sanitization protocols and practice social distancing.
The housing instability isn’t the only problem during the pandemic; organizations had to alter their services in different ways to fit the needs of the homeless community while the city’s guidelines tightened.
Philly Restart, a meal supplier and ID service organization, is now offering their ID service through mail which led to fewer people getting IDs. They’ve written only about 300 checks for people to request an ID from PennDOT since the pandemic started. Fortunately, PA Act 131 of 2020, which came into effect on January 25th, now permits a free initial PennDot ID or renewal to all Pennsylvanians experiencing homelessness.
Philly Restart has been serving grab and go meals on Mondays 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. since 2002 on the Ben Franklin Parkway at 19th Street. They continue to distribute meals along with masks. They’re also practicing social distancing, utilizing a hand sanitation station, and wearing gloves to serve meals to ensure everyone’s safety.
Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission had to take a similar approach since the pandemic. They started to offer grab and go meals out of the front window of their building. They used to be the only organization that served 3 meals a day in the city of Philadelphia. Now, they’re only serving dinners to the general public. However, they’re still serving 3 meals a day to their guests staying at the facility.
While there’s a variety of efforts to help the homeless individuals in Philadelphia, there are many problems within the community that remain unresolved during the pandemic.
“The food insecurity issue has gotten worse. The drug issues have gotten worse. The street violence has gotten worse and all that affects the homeless community,” said Adam Bruckner, director of Philly Restart.
How can each individual help the homeless community in Philadelphia?
Bruckner urged people to be informed and continue to be a consistent advocate. Helping out in any way you can, whether it would be volunteering or contributing to the agencies would be a great help as well.
Montgomery said don’t participate in handouts because it undermines the work that organizations are doing. It makes homeless individuals feel like there’s no need to seek the help and services offered by professionals. The best thing you can do is to treat them with dignity and to smile.
Philly Restart and Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission both welcome cash donations. They also take item donations as well. Right now, Philly Restart is in need of ponchos and Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission is in need of underwear and boxers. If you have any questions about donating or volunteering, you can email Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission at email@example.com and Philly Restart at firstname.lastname@example.org