Broke in Philly

Philadelphia leads the way in 24-hour homeless shelters

Prevention Point is the latest center to keep its doors open around the clock.

Kate Perch, director of housing services for Prevention Point Philadelphia, offers services

Kate Perch, director of housing services for Prevention Point Philadelphia, offers services

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn

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Philadelphia has one of the smallest homeless populations among the nation’s big cities, a stat that’s even more striking considering its chart-topping poverty rate.

One of the major factors keeping people off Philly’s streets? Unlike other metropolitan areas, many havens for those experiencing homelessness stay open 24/7.

Prevention Point — the Kensington nonprofit that somehow seems do it all — is the most recent to get on board.

The decades-old addiction recovery center had already offered meals, medical services, case management, housing and education. It boasts the first syringe exchange program in Pennsylvania, and it hosts for the community regular naloxone training sessions. Two weeks ago, thanks to a boost from the city’s Office of Homeless Services, the center started keeping its shelters open during the day. The two 80-person facilities don’t kick people out at 7 a.m. anymore like they used to.

“It’s a goal we’ve had for a long time,” said Kate Perch, Prevention Point’s director of housing services. “It gives 80 people a chance to be inside, to not have to find ways to occupy themselves in the community during the day.”

Locally, all-day accommodations are pretty standard. OHS spokesperson Josh Kruger said all 25 city-contracted shelters stay open 24 hours.

But compared to the rest of the country, Philly’s operating hours are uncommon.

Nationwide, the model has always been to open doors in the evening, then close when the sun comes up, requiring staff to throw people out every morning. That’s why shelter capacity is so often measured in “beds.”

“It’s definitely the norm,” said Penn professor Dennis Culhane, who’s researched homelessness for two decades. That has not made advocates happy, he noted, because daytime is often when trouble arises — and when there are people around to work on solutions. “There’s no place to work on resolving the issues…that they’re trying to address.”

Kruger, of OHS, couldn’t pinpoint exactly when Philly deviated from that norm, but guessed that the 24/7 accommodations likely predate the Kenney administration.

“It’s a very 1970s style thought, that from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. you have to get the hell out,” he told Billy Penn. “That’s just not how it is here.”

A former Kensington homeless encampment

A former Kensington homeless encampment

Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn

‘Three hots and a cot’

In the 1970s, the United States’ street population surged, thanks to:

Finding themselves in a crisis, outreach workers popularized the homeless shelter model that we know today, one meant to offer “temporary havens” to people with no place else to go.

“Historically, they’re ‘three hots and a cot,'” Culhane said, a phrase meaning each shelter provided a place to sleep and three meals — and that’s it. They weren’t designed or staffed to deal with crowds all day long.

Fast forward 40 years, the emergency shelter model is still among the most popular temporary solutions to homelessness. And for many of those providers, nighttime services are all they can manage.

“There’s an argument that these shelters are already overburdened simply trying to operate what they do,” Culhane said. “They have to handle security, the linens have to be washed. There’s so much work involved in just the ‘hotel’ operations.”

But Philly has overcome the burden. And the city’s daytime shelter hours likely contribute to its successful homelessness outreach strategy.

Philly has just about 1,000 residents living unsheltered, while cities like New York top 3,000 and Los Angeles reaches nearly 23,000.

“I don’t think you can say that because we have daytime hours that’s why we have the lowest rate,” Kruger said. “But I think that it can’t hurt.”

There are a few other exceptions to the rule: New York City maintains 24/7 shelters, too, and Boston has a network of daytime centers to complement its nighttime beds. Washington, D.C. is currently in the middle of a $1.7 million effort to build a massive daytime drop-in center. Other cities open up emergency shelters during the day in inclement weather.

Other Kensington outreach workers were excited to learn that Prevention Point will offer daytime housing. Dave Tomlinson, a local drug and alcohol counselor, subscribes to the thought that the more services for unsheltered people, the better.

“This change will allow for people to have an incremental amount more security and comfort, which is unquestionably important, no matter how small,” he said.

And if fewer people are living on the street during the day, then perhaps it will alleviate ongoing quality-of-life problems for Kensington residents.

“Hopefully, if people use it,” Tomlinson added, “it will create a better environment for the neighborhood.”

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