Philly’s coronavirus response

Why Philly shut down its homeless COVID hotels, and why advocates are furious

A private prison company runs one of the temporary sites where residents are being relocated.

Protests were staged many nights this week by people angry over the shutdown of the city's COVID prevention sites

Protests were staged many nights this week by people angry over the shutdown of the city's COVID prevention sites

Veronica Carden
BALA CYNWYD, PA - JAN 12, 2019:  Courtenay Harris Bond and her husband Jeffery Bond stand in their renovated kitchen after a tree on their property fell on their home. "CREDIT: Will Figg for The Wall Street Journal"
TREES-Bond

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Stacie Miller was thrilled when she was able to move from a shelter to a room in the Holiday Inn Express Center City over the summer.

The 55-year-old, who hadn’t had a place to call home in over a year, said she suffers from fibromyalgia, a serious heart condition, and is being evaluated for possible multiple sclerosis. That left her susceptible to a bad case of COVID, which is how she got into the hotel.

Opened this spring, the prevention sites were set up by Philly Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration for people vulnerable to the coronavirus who had nowhere else to go.

This week Miller and 200 others are being forced to leave. Along with about three-quarters of the residents, she’s not moving into the permanent housing she says city officials promised when she first arrived.

“They told me when I got here that this was the last place I would have to go before [permanent] housing,” Miller said.

Instead, she’ll move into one of two temporary locations, which advocates characterize as “halfway houses” that could traumatize residents.

Organizers helping the prevention site residents said a lack of good communication about the process caused confusion — or worse.

Jennifer Bennetch, founder of Philadelphia Housing Action, said she found former Holiday Inn resident Teddy Munson sleeping on the street last week because he was confused by a flier saying he had to vacate by Dec. 15.

“My hope is to get a house, any kind of house,” said Munson, a 61-year-old with a pacemaker and intellectual disabilities.

He ended up moving back into the Fairfield Inn for a few days. When he’s forced to leave again, Bennetch is worried he’ll skip the temporary housing and stay on the streets because he has a cleaning job at a restaurant in Center City.

Here’s what we know about the ongoing situation.

Why are the COVID prevention sites closing?

Philadelphia officials say they’re shutting down the sites because federal funding via the CARES Act runs out at the end of the year. This doesn’t come as a surprise — and the lack of action in Congress to pass new stimulus sealed the deal.

Resources for Human Development, the nonprofit contracted by the city to run the Holiday Inn site, knew about the pending closure in late October, according to Vice President of Culture and Communications Baroness Martin.

Facing a huge municipal budget gap, officials in the Kenney administration said there’s no other way to pay for the program’s continuation.

Housing advocates counter that just means the cause doesn’t top the list. “It’s just not a priority, or there’s no political will,” Wiley Cunningham, an organizer with Philadelphia Housing Action.

When will people be forced to leave?

The closure of the two sites, located at the Holiday Inn Express at Sansom and Juniper and the Fairfield Inn at 13th and Spruce, will displace around 200 residents.

After starting the process on Monday, it could take a week or more for everyone to be moved, officials say, especially because of snow delays.

Are people moving into permanent homes?

Around a quarter of site residents are transferring to new permanent homes, thanks to Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services (OHS), which helped identify and negotiate the spaces.

OHS Director Liz Hersh said the city is working hard to place the 160 or so others.

“We moved heaven and earth to create long-term housing opportunities for everyone who came into these sites,” Hersh said. “No one is being returned to homelessness.”

Where is the temporary housing offered to others?

Prevention site residents who haven’t yet found permanent homes are being offered temporary housing.

City officials would not confirm specific locations. Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director at Philly’s Office of Health and Human Services, said the Department of Public Property had identified sites that were move-in ready, had zoning in place, offered adequate social distancing to keep people safe, and were near transit and commerce.

Allies and advocates for people experiencing homelessness say the two sites are 1917 W. Oxford Street and 600 E. Luzerne Street.

Why are advocates upset about the temp housing?

Cunningham, of Philadelphia Housing Action, characterized the temporary living locations as halfway houses. He cited concerns that people with a history of incarceration might be traumatized by having to live there.

According to city records, the Luzerne Street property is called Walker Hall and is owned by CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, a company that owns and manages private prisons and detention centers.

Advocates are also concerned by the plan for room sharing when so many residents have underlying health issues that make them susceptible to adverse COVID-19 effects.

Deputy Managing Director Gladstein said the shared rooms were made to hold eight people and are plenty big for pairs.

Was communication lacking during the process?

Cunningham and other Philadelphia Housing Action organizers said lack of clarity around the move-out process caused unnecessary problems. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t know where they’re going,” he said. “I talked to people who haven’t talked to their caseworkers in three months.”

Miller, the 55-year-old with fibromyalgia, confirmed the confusion. Her RHD case manager “isn’t very good,” she said. “He didn’t really know what credentials I needed and what to do next.”

Another resident Cunningham spoke to was given a housing voucher and told she had to find her own place to live, he said. When she did, she discovered the waiting period was four weeks, so she would need to stay at one of the temporary sites in the meantime.

RHD blamed the confusion on the fact that details took a long time to be finalized. “We do realize there was some anxiety and confusion among residents,” VP of Communications Baroness said via email.

Despite widespread concerns among residents and advocates about RHD’s communication and handling of the process, Baroness said RHD had not received any formal complaints.

The city also didn’t hear complaints about RHD’s management, according to spokesperson Mike Dunn.

“Our standards require that case managers meet with people within five days of their arrival,” Dunn said. “Given that at the community prevention sites people come and go at will, sometimes it has taken longer. We have initial assessments and housing plans for just about everyone, so from our records it would appear that the case managers are doing their job.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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