Thomas B., who has been living at 18th and Vine streets

Updated Jan. 6

As Philadelphia moves to clear some encampments of people experiencing homelessness, the city is partnering with local businesses to pilot a novel solution. Instead of just sending folks to shelters, efforts will be made to get them into permanent or semi-permanent housing.

On Monday, workers from the Office of Homeless Services are planning to disperse the collection of tents around 18th and Vine. Soon to potentially follow: the tunnels below the Pa. Convention Center.

In clearing the camps, OHS will follow the template of the much-publicized Encampment Resolution Pilot. That program saw the city close four camps in Kensington over the past year and a half, with the goal of placing people in shelters and connecting them with needed services. It was successful enough that Philadelphia is now using it on a smaller scale.

Having posted signs in November about the Jan. 6 evacuation date, OHS has been working for months with police and outreach teams — each department shouldering the cost operationally — to get people placed into shelters, safe havens, and substance use and mental health treatment. Individuals will be able to have their belongings safely stored for up to 60 days.

“We lead with services based on what people want, need, and will accept,” said OHS Director Liz Hersh. “It’s person-centered and about service delivery to reach a solution that helps people move forward — and improves quality of life in our neighborhoods.”

But people who haven’t accepted placements by Monday will probably just migrate to another camp. One of the likely destinations: the Convention Center tunnels.

The sidewalks of the north-south roadways that run below the international meeting destination — 12th and 13th streets from Arch to Race — have always been a hot spot for people looking to escape the elements. But the number of people congregating there has swollen in recent months.

Juan Guerra, 58, was sleeping there last week, his head resting on his yellow bag. He’d been living there for six months and has been homeless for about 15 years after being in prison for immigration issues, he said. Guerra is originally from Cuba.

“We look out for each other,” Guerra said about people living in the tunnels. “Homelessness is a problem. Nobody is trying to take care of the problem. It is a social problem, and we have to take care of it, or it will only get worse.”

A sign on Vine street makes clear the city doesn’t want people camping there Credit: Courtenay Harris Bond / for Billy Penn

PHL Cares: $500k to find people homes

The growing population in the tunnels hasn’t escaped the attention of the city — or the Convention Center’s leadership and business community.

John McNichol, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, has been working with OHS for a year on a new program that’ll try to solve the lack of housing, instead of just force people elsewhere. “It’s been a very accelerated learning curve for me,” he told Billy Penn last summer.

McNichol is putting his money where his mouth is. Under his direction, the Convention Center Authority is making a $500,000 challenge grant for the cause.

Administered via the Philadelphia Foundation, the goal is to get other businesses to give to the fund, which will be used to secure permanent supportive housing for people who experience chronic homelessness. The Convention Center will match donations made by other businesses up to half a million dollars, McNichol said.

Dave Simonetti, senior director of store operations for Wawa, and Joe Coradino, chairman and CEO of PREIT, the developer of the Fashion District and other area malls, are also part of the effort, which has been dubbed Philadelphia Cares, or “PHLCares.”

With the money, the city would be able to help get people “off the street, get them, whether it be mental health services, whether it be addiction services, and get them a door and a key,” McNichol said. “We’ve got people who are willing to come off the street…but there’s no permanent assigned beds available for them.”

The Convention Center Authority has already donated $25,000 to the fund, so that other businesses can start making matching contributions.

At the Vine Street encampment Credit: Courtenay Harris Bond / for Billy Penn

At shelters, ‘everything gets stolen’

The Convention Center was set to take the lead on this effort since many people panhandling throughout the city during the day sleep in its tunnels.

“We’re not trying to pretend that this is the be all and end all to homelessness in the city, but it is a major important step,” said Convention Center CEO McNichol. “I always explain to my friends in the business community that it’s ok to hate homelessness; you just can’t hate the homeless.”

This is a message that would make sense to Sharief H., 37, who was experiencing homelessness and resting in the 13th Street tunnel late last week.

“I can’t stand when people say nothing when a homeless person asks them for help,” said Sharief, who declined to give his last name. “Saying nothing at all, like as far as basically ignoring another human life, bothers me. Humanity needs to change its way of thinking.”

Kruger said he couldn’t yet provide details on exactly how or when the city would address the Convention Center tunnels.

In the meantime, people at at 18th and Vine are preparing to depart. Last Thursday, Thomas B., who also didn’t want to give his last name, was sitting on a crate smoking outside his tent and wondering what he was going to do. He got out of Graterford Prison a few weeks ago and has been staying at the Vine Street encampment ever since.

“I really didn’t have any place to go,” said Thomas, 46. “They tried to put me in a shelter, and pretty much everything gets stolen in there, phones, clothing, everything. I figured it’s safer here.”

He said that even though he had been offered a bed in a shelter by outreach workers, he was reluctant to go. “To be honest with you,” he said about the pending clearing, “they’re just going to move somewhere else. I was down at Broad and Spruce. There were tents down there already.”

Just then, Pa.Rep. Donna Bullock and her 9-year-old son Xavier pulled up alongside the encampment and unloaded boxes of water and sandwiches. Bullock said her son has seen people experiencing homelessness around the city and wanted to do something to help. He asked if they could pass out food, which they did over spring break and now his winter break.

Xavier said his dream was “that all the homeless, they have shelters and food to eat.”

Xavier Bullock, 9, delivers water to people living at 18th and Vine Credit: Courtenay Harris Bond / for Billy Penn