By Bob Byrne
Hundreds of Philadelphia families, even from the priciest neighborhoods of our city, find themselves homeless during the course of any month. Far too often, they cannot get the emergency help they need. Philadelphia’s safety net, the shelter system, is stretched well beyond capacity and lacks the resources necessary to respond to current economic and housing realities of city residents, in particular for the Northeast ZIP codes that Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network and our 20 Northeast-area congregations serve. Northeast Philadelphia has the second-highest eviction rate in the city. More than 5,700 school district students were homeless last year. Some were in shelter, but others were couch surfing. Each year, approximately 14,000 Philadelphians utilize a homeless shelter.
Homelessness occurs for a myriad of reasons and comes with many costs. Shelter beds are very expensive — approximately $15,000 per individual and $45,000 for a three-person household per year. The choice not to build additional shelter beds to meet the true need comes with hidden social costs that show up in unnecessary placements in the child welfare system, increased health crises, lost employment, delays in educational progress for children, prolonged domestic violence, increased trauma and resulting behavioral health problems. Vacant housing brings down our neighborhoods.
Rather than let families and children fall behind, how can Philadelphia provide necessary resources and services sooner to prevent the downward spiral of homelessness? A promising solution lies in a cost-effective “homelessness prevention” strategy, managed by public-private partnerships that include community, faith-based, local government and corporate collaboration and support.
On March 13 and March 20, PIHN, Family Service Provider Network, the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, Health Providers, legal aid groups and others testified in public hearings on homelessness prevention and Philadelphia’s eviction crisis to ask our City Council to support investment in community-based prevention strategies that would help 1,000 households avoid the emergency shelter system. Utilizing the Housing Trust Fund for homelessness-prevention monies would be money well spent. Some $3 million would provide landlord mediation, legal assistance, financial coaching, benefits advocacy, employment and training, “master leasing” and short-term financial assistance. These interventions have been tried in other cities and have proven 98-percent successful in preventing homelessness and displacement. While there will still be some families who need higher levels of service, most low-income working families can avoid homelessness with targeted interventions.
Prevention-intervention costs range from $500 per household to $6,000 per household for one year of service, compared to the high costs of providing shelter or the societal costs of doing nothing. PIHN believes that our city leadership should work to develop a community-based homelessness-prevention plan utilizing funds from the City Housing Trust Fund. By investing in a proven intervention, homeless Philadelphians won’t have to rely solely on the shelter system. A great city like Philadelphia can, and should, do better for its vulnerable citizens. ••
Bob Byrne is Northeast Philadelphia program director for the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network.