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At 9:30 a.m on a cold December Monday, the warm sound of reverberating steel strings fills the subway concourse with the familiar 12-bar progressions of classic blues, bringing the legacies of Muddy Waters and BB King to Philadelphia’s underground.
The music is so infectious people are standing up, stomping their feet and clapping to the tempo. Even shy folks are swaying in their seats and humming along.
Every few seconds, the subterranean dance party is punctuated by the sound of rumbling trains and the gurgling of fresh coffee being brewed. But the weekday morning slog and harsh fluorescent glow are no match for the energy at the Hub of Hope.
Sparked by the guitar plucks of 83-year-old John Oliver, Jr., the Project HOME outpost tucked into a corner of Suburban Station is jumping — especially the section called the Living Room.
A gathering place for people experiencing varying stages of homelessness, the Hub of Hope offers several wraparound services, like case management and medical care. But the Living Room isn’t just a place to discuss your hardships. Regulars show up every day to the 9 a.m. meeting to forge close-knit bonds and have fun, introducing song and dance to their daily routines.
“Their lives otherwise might be pretty depressing,” said Sister Eileen Sizer, who runs daily programming there. “But that’s not the way it is in the Living Room. It’s about relationships and people caring for one another.”
Guitars have been donated to the program, Sizer said, and several skilled musicians show up every single day to strum and sing along.
One of them is Oliver. The musician grew up in South Carolina, and upon moving to Philly he spent years tangled in the criminal justice system. Afterward, he became homeless, dwelling temporarily in rowhomes and boarding houses along Rising Sun Avenue and outside on North Broad streets.
Last year, right around this time, Oliver spent a day busking in Suburban Station, as he often did while experiencing homelessness.
This time was different. A Living Room regular named Vivian heard the enduring blues melodies and begged him to come and play at the Hub for the holidays. At first, Oliver resisted. But one day when he walked by, he felt compelled, so he went inside. He’s been at the morning meeting almost every day since.
“They helped me a lot,” Oliver said. “I was having so much trouble, I was staying place to place. Sometimes I would stay on the street. I just got scared and said, ‘I have to find something better than this.’”
Research shows music is a powerful rehabilitative force. Prisons all over the country have incorporated music into their programming. And a study from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that people who participated recorded 75% fewer disciplinary actions — and were 27% less likely to reoffend after they were released.
At a time of year when people experiencing homelessness often feel extra alienated from their families and friends, music can infuse a dose of much-needed cheer.
“Everyone’s into it, everyone’s up dancing and singing,” Sister Sizer said. “People who walk by the room that we’re in, they get mesmerized by the joy they see among people who may have spent the night on the street, who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.”
For Oliver, performing at the Hub has expanded his musical opportunities. In addition to his daily gig at the Living Room, he plays the guitar every Monday at Broad Street Ministries — and can often be found joining the crews who cater to the crowds passing by Reading Terminal Market and City Hall.
It also landed him a place to live. After meeting him last December, Sizer and the Project HOME team secured long-term housing for Oliver at Hunting Park’s Sacred Heart Home.
Without music, he’s not sure he would have even entered the program at all. “That’s how the whole thing started,” Oliver said. “That’s how I got into housing.”