Felix Pérez Peña is one of the people at Philly's COVID prevention sites who has found a new permanent home

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Felix Pérez Peña was excited to move into a place he can call home. He’d been living at the Center City Holiday Inn since early August, one of two sites set by the city last spring as a short-term solution for Philadelphians vulnerable to contracting coronavirus in congregate settings like shelters.

Recently, Pérez Peña moved into his own room at a building managed by the nonprofit Love Pray Peace Project.

It’s the first time he has permanent living quarters since separating from his wife, the 70-year-old told Billy Penn through translator Krissi Judd, founder of Love Pray Peace Project.

Judd’s nonprofit is one of the organizations working with Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to relocate people living at the COVID prevention sites, which are shutting down at the end of the year when federal CARES Act funding runs out.

All 225 or so residents at the prevention sites have been given a deadline of Dec. 15 to depart.

Along with Pérez Peña, 48 people have so far been placed in permanent housing, including two couples who were able to stay together, according to city spokesperson Mike Dunn.

With less than a week until the move-out date, approximately 175 individuals still need to find permanent, affordable, safe housing.

People who haven’t found a place to live by Tuesday’s shutdown will be offered space at various community-based sites throughout the city, according to Liz Hersh, director of Philly’s Office of Homeless Services, which will continue to work with them.

It costs $12,000 to $15,000 a year to house a Philadelphia resident in one of these sites, Hersh said. In this case, the money is coming from a combination of HUD and city funds.

The city hopes to have everyone from the COVID prevention spaces placed in permanent homes by the end of March, Hersh added.

Some advocates say the city didn’t take action soon enough. Jennifer Bennetch, founder of Occupy PHA and one of the organizers of the protest encampments that struck a historic housing deal with the city this fall, is one of the critics.

“Over the summer during the negotiations, we argued about this a bunch of times, and the city promised that nobody would be kicked out of the COVID hotel without [permanent housing],” Bennetch said. “We’ve been doing outreach at the hotel every day…People are saying they’re just meeting their case managers in the last week or two.”

Bennetch also expressed skepticism about some of the locations she’d heard the city was planning to use for the temporary housing.

A flyer being distributed to people staying at Philly’s COVID prevention site Credit: Hotel resident

City spokesperson Dunn said the administration has been “working day in and day out to fulfill the individualized housing plans of all guests,” adding that sometimes people were being offered two or three options “so they can get the best fit available.”

Each resident has a housing case manager to help them navigate the transition, Dunn said.

For instance, case managers helped residents at the prevention spaces obtain needed identification or other documentation while units were identified, inspected, and prepared for move-in, Dunn said. The nonprofit Philadelphia Furniture Bank, part of Pathways to Housing, is providing furniture and TVs; the city is offering transportation to their new homes — all at no cost to residents.

One of the residents at the Holiday Inn prevention site didn’t make it to this point. Anthony Thomas, 60, died of an accidental drug overdose over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Several people at the hotel told Billy Penn his body was not found for a couple of days.

“I loved him a lot,” said Gladys Harlow, an ally of individuals who had been living in the Parkway encampment before it closed. “People should know that Anthony was a good person. He never really wanted to ask for anything.”

A sketch of the late Anthony Thomas by friend Gladys Harlow Credit: Gladys Harlow

The Holiday Inn, located near 13th and Sansom streets, is also the site of Philadelphia’s quarantine site for people who’ve already tested positive — after a different hotel caught fire last month. People staying there for that reason will remain even after prevention site residents move out, according to Hersh, of OHS.

“The city had really hoped it wouldn’t be needed, but with the surge [in coronavirus cases] this fall” the city decided to extend the quarantine space, Hersh said.

Anyone who’s still part of the prevention site program and hasn’t been placed by Dec. 15 will continue to get help.

“They do not lose their place in line,” Dunn said. “No one should return to homelessness.”