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Billy Penn is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic justice. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow at @BrokeInPhilly.
Clarification appended, updated 12:05 p.m.
When officials from the Office of Homeless Services heard a Philly movie theater was running free screenings for people experiencing homelessness during Code Blue nights, they were thrilled.
“It’s wonderful that a group of people is thinking about how to meet the needs of their homeless neighbors,” OHS Director Liz Hersh told Billy Penn. It’s the first time she can remember a private business opening its doors specifically to host the homeless population overnight.
The theater is South Street Cinema, a pop-up that the South Street Headhouse District has been operating in one of the strip’s vacant storefronts for more than a year now. Since its debut, it’s been run by Bill Arrowood, who used to work for SSHD but no longer does.
Arrowood pulled nine all-nighters in the span of 14 days to make the Code Blue screenings happen. During January’s first cold snap, he gave out free popcorn and played movies from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. People could stay for the duration, or they could drop in for just one movie at a time.
But the act of kindness was short-lived. According to Arrowood, the SSHD asked him to shut down the pseudo-shelter.
“We have a few regular outside folks in the neighborhood,” Arrowood said, “and I couldn’t ignore that I knew they were in the elements and cold when we had a means to help, even just a little.”
With 40 open seats, the South Street Cinema hosted an average of 12 people each night it was open — with a max of 18 attendees and a minimum of eight at a time. Some nights, staff from the neighboring bar Tattooed Mom would bring by pizzas to share.
An OHS spokesperson said the office couldn’t comment on concerns about safety and that it would fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Licenses & Inspections.
The leaseholders do appear worried about liability — especially after Fox29 discovered the operation and splashed it on the evening news.
“The cinema space is not equipped, staffed or intended to operate as an ongoing drop-in warming center, especially one that is regionally publicized in the media,” said Michael Harris, SSHD’s executive director.
A makeshift warming center
In official terms, Arrowood’s theater would likely be classified as a warming center. That describes a non-shelter temporarily offering shelter-like services during an especially cold period.
Last winter, the Office of Homeless Services counted more than 1,000 people living outside. To get people inside in the cold season, OHS expands its shelters by 300 beds every year. During a Code Blue, the office makes available another 100 beds on top of that.
And when situations get really dire — like last year’s bomb cyclone, which triggered a 21-day Code Blue — the city will ask places to host a warming center. Last year, Cione Rec Center and the Kensington Storefront stepped up to host. At a warming center, people can come and go as they please, while shelters often require an entire night’s stay.
“The city starts thinking about warming centers typically when we anticipate a prolonged cold snap when there are people on the street who need a place to get warm and the system is nearing capacity,” Hersh said.
There are various city and state regulations governing details about emergency shelters, regarding things like worker-to-guest ratio and equal treatment regardless of race or sexual orientation, an OHS spokesperson noted.
She’d be open to establishing a more formal partnership with South Street Cinema, perhaps one where the theater could work with OHS’ existing providers, or kick in as a legit warming center when Philly got cold enough. “It’s especially heartening,” she said, “that this group wants to extend a helping hand and talk about solutions.”
But of course, none of that is possible without approval from the owner of the building.
And it doesn’t seem like SSHD will allow the theater to continue any time soon — from Harris’s perspective, the whole operation is a liability concern.
“Bill’s overnight screenings on the coldest nights of the year was a kind gesture,” Harris said. “As always, SSHD will continue to work with the City of Philadelphia Homeless Outreach Services teams to offer assistance to those individuals who might be in need of services or shelter.”
“I am grateful for the opportunity to serve and offer what I could,” Arrowood said. “I understand that liability makes more decisions than compassion.”