Who counts Philly’s homeless? Sometimes, people who’ve experienced it themselves

“Peer-driven harm-reduction outreach is where it’s at.”

A man talks to Kate Perch, housing coordinator for Prevention Point Philadelphia, about getting services

A man talks to Kate Perch, housing coordinator for Prevention Point Philadelphia, about getting services

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn
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Editor’s note: Persons pictured here gave express permission to be photographed for this article.

Steven Robnett stopped using drugs three months ago and has been living in Prevention Point Philadelphia’s Kensington shelter for just over three weeks. Surviving outdoors is harrowingly familiar to the 57-year-old.

But he was back out on the street last Wednesday night — this time participating in Philly’s annual point-in-time count of the city’s homeless population.

“I think it will be good for me,” Robnett said with a grin. He felt he’d be able to help others wrestling with issues that until recently he had battled for nearly 30 years.

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About 200 volunteers turned out at Rodeph Shalom for the homeless count

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn

Robnett was just one of approximately 200 volunteers who gathered at 10:30 p.m. at Rodeph Shalom on North Broad on Jan. 24 to get final instructions before fanning out in groups across the city.

In addition to counting individuals living on the street, volunteers and outreach workers surveyed willing participants about the causes of their homelessness and their history of drug use and medical issues and offered help.

Having people with lived experience assist in the count makes it more productive, since empathy is a powerful tool, said Liz Hersh, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services.

Overall, the count “gives us a chance to engage people and offer them services, so we know where to put our resources,” Hersh said. “It also helps us benchmark ourselves nationally.”

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Perch explains to the police about the count

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn

Every city in the country conducts the point-in-time count on the same date each January.

The results of each count go to the Office of Housing and Urban Development to help determine how much funding each municipality will receive to address homelessness.

Despite the count’s shortcomings — workers are prohibited from entering abandoned buildings for safety and trespassing reasons, for instance — it helps identify trends, such as if more women or veterans are living on the streets.

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Liz Hersh, director of the office of homeless services, speaks with a volunteer

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn

“The goal is really, in a way, to complete a census, to get factual information about this population in this neighborhood and in the city,” said Kate Perch, Prevention Point’s Housing Coordinator, who headed the night’s Kensington team.

“I think for what we’re attempting to accomplish and the limitations of how we can do it,” Perch said, “this is pretty effective.”

The group of 16 outreach workers and volunteers canvassing Kensington broke into four crews, driving through the night and stopping to engage individuals at known hot spots under Conrail overpasses and in more tucked away corners of the city’s most drug-ravaged neighborhood.

Because of the opioid crisis, Hersh said she worried that the homeless number would be higher than last year’s 5,693.

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Perch consults a map before the count

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn

But for those in Kensington on that 25-degree night, the work came down not just to statistics but to human connections.

A Prevention Point outreach worker gave a long hug to Jolene Piliero, who has been homeless for eight months and was planning to sleep under the Emerald Street bridge. She then filled out the survey and got one of the $5 McDonald’s gift cards handed out as rewards.

Piliero had been on heroin and cocaine to ease the discomfort of her Multiple Sclerosis, she said, and was kicked out of her home eight months ago when her husband started using drugs while she was in the hospital. On really cold nights, the 36 year old just “curls up in a ball.”

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Vanessa, Emerald Street

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn

Still, she declined an offer from Prevention Point outreach worker Nicholas Hale to try to find her a place for the night. She was with her adult daughter, and they would make it through alright, Piliero said.

Hale’s own brother has been battling homelessness and addiction, he said, and that’s one of the reasons he’s drawn to harm reduction work and trying to help people like Piliero. Sensitized by his brother’s struggles, Hale approached people with a gentle manner and obvious care.

After surveying Claire, who was bedding down at Emerald Street under a makeshift tent and a pile of blankets, Hale went over some final details about getting her into the long-term treatment she has been seeking.

A solitary encampment in Kensington with a sign warning people off

A solitary encampment in Kensington with a sign warning people off

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn

Claire (who only wanted to use her first name) said she had been homeless for about three years and had started doing sex work to support her heroin and crack habit.

“I never chose to be out here — ever,” said Claire, 30. “And it’s not like I’m some scumbag on the street. Every day, people look at me and judge me, and that hurts. Because we’re not bad people, most of us.”

Under the bridge at Tulip Street, Annakay Thomas, 37, was packing her belongings, including an elaborate tent her boyfriend had started to demolish during a recent fight. Thomas was trying to protect their bedding from city crews that do weekly sweeps under the bridges, confiscating what people leave behind.

Anakay Thomas takes a break from packing up camp

Annakay Thomas takes a break from packing up camp

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn

She had only been living there for about three weeks, she said, after being thrown out of a room in a house by an unscrupulous landlord who kept the full month’s rent.

“I know for us, we don’t chose to be here,” Thomas said. “It was just like a situation that just happens, and we just went from one bad landlord to another bad landlord to outside.”

Trying to find a spot for the night at Emerald Street, Chris, 21, said he panhandled on the El to make money to buy heroin and crack.

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Chris strides along under the Emerald Street bridge

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn

“I started when my daughter’s mother committed suicide,” he said. “I started shooting up. Ever since then, it’s been a downward spiral.”

It was a story that Prevention Point worker Luke Dunn, more than twice Chris’ age at 48, said he could relate to. He had experienced years of drug use and homelessness himself, before finding his way into treatment and being “reincarnated” as an outreach advocate.

Said Dunn: “Peer-driven harm-reduction outreach is where it’s at.”