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Philly’s Office of Supportive Housing got more than it asked for. The agency applied for $668,000 less than what the federal Office of Housing and Urban Development is sending them— a $28 million grant that will back 2,200 permanent and transitional housing units for the homeless.

Outside of Patriot House, a Point Breeze veterans' living center with HUD-backed units.
Outside of Patriot House, a Point Breeze veterans’ living center with HUD-backed units. Credit: Office of Supportive Housing

The award, even with the boost, can’t be called an expansion; it’s a renewal. Currently, 29 percent of the OSH’s $73-million budget comes from federal funding, so it’s key for the office to secure this grant each year. The office also received an additional $930,000 for strategy. 

“In the old days, it was that a lot of the funding that we got from the federal government was by formula or by rates,” explains OSH Director Liz Hersh. “So if Philadelphia had x poverty rate or x population, we got a share of the money. That’s no longer true for this money. This money is competitive.”

HUD, which considers permanent housing for the homeless a “best-practice,” incentivized requests for long-term dwellings during this application round.

What this $28 million will do

The investment in permanent housing is thanks to a strategy shift, Hersh explains. According to Shelterforce — the National Housing Institute’s magazine when the homelessness crisis came to head in the U.S. in the ’80s, “early approaches emphasized crisis intervention, resulting in shelters and soup kitchens that could address people’s immediate needs.”

This allowed for a pipeline of sorts, which Hersh describes as streets to shelters, shelters to transitional housing, transitional accommodations to permanent ones. “That method of providing services is not the accepted way of doing it,” says Hersh. “The whole system has basically been turned upside down… The idea is that permanent housing, Housing First, these are the things that are a priority.”

Counting Philly’s homeless

In 2015, there were 15,000 homeless Philadelphians, according to city numbers. The estimate for how many people were homeless on any given night—called a point-in-time count— was 5,300.

The push for more permanent housing has helped bring the city's numbers down in recent years, especially with veteran homelessness, which the city reports it has all but eliminated.
The push for more permanent housing has helped bring the city’s numbers down in recent years, especially with veteran homelessness, which the city reports it has all but eliminated. Credit: Office of Supportive Housing Report

Hersh mentions that a considerable group of transitional housing providers they’ve worked with are converting their properties to permanent units, another response to the shift within homeless assistance. The decline of temporary residences in favor of long-term lodging has been observed nationally; this grant funds both, but backs temp spaces to a much lesser degree. In 2015, OSH’s HUD award subsidized nearly five times as many permanent supportive housing beds than temp spots.

Looking at point-in-time counts more closely, more than 600 young people between 18 and 24 are homeless right now. Philadelphia joined a 22-city youth homelessness mitigation consortium, Voice of Youth Count, last month. The resulting “data, I think, is going to be really helpful for us,” says Hersh.

“We’re taking stock of everything that we’re doing,” she says. “We have some internal research and assessment that we’re undertaking… We know that resources are inadequate, that there’s not enough services available and there’s not enough places for them.”

Youth homelessness will also be the focus of a series of City Council Committee hearings, slated for this spring.

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic...