The city of Philadelphia expects to receive $42 million of the $5 billion in American Rescue Plan funds that the Biden administration is allocating nationwide to create affordable housing and related services for people experiencing homelessness.
Local leaders and advocates acknowledged the city’s share is not a huge sum, but praised it as an infusion of hope.
“We’re thrilled, we’re thrilled,” said Liz Hersh, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services. “It’s not a lot, but it’s a down payment that’s long overdue.”
Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of the anti-homelessness agency Project HOME, agreed: “This is a welcome and critically needed resource, especially at this time.”
Marcia Fudge, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced the disbursement on Thursday, saying it’s part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that President Biden signed last month.
“Homelessness in the United States was increasing even before COVID-19, and we know the pandemic has only made the crisis worse,” Fudge said. “HUD’s swift allocation of this $5 billion in American Rescue Plan funding reflects our commitment to addressing homelessness as a priority.”
Philadelphia won’t receive the money until the fall, and it must be spent by 2030, Hersh said.
Last month, Fudge announced that the Biden administration is determined to use stimulus money to get as many as 130,000 of the country’s estimated 580,000 homeless people off the streets over the next 18 months. Philadelphia’s latest available count is 5,700 total people living homeless, with 952 on the street and the balance in shelters, OHS figures show.
“Biden’s approach is a night-and-day difference in attitude from the previous presidential administration,” said Joe Willard, vice president for policy at the People’s Emergency Center in West Philadelphia. The agency provides numerous services for people experiencing homelessness.
“The Trump administration looked to gut all these programs, and saw it as wasteful spending,” said Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. “I can’t tell you how what the Biden administration is doing excites me.”
The Biden administration has indicated that permanent housing should be every municipality’s goal, more important than building additional homeless shelters. In a few months, Fudge’s office said, the administration will release another $5 billion in emergency housing vouchers. Jeremiah said he doesn’t know what Philadelphia’s share of that money will be.
Discussions about how the city will spend its portion have been ongoing this week, said Michael Hinson, president and CEO of SELF, Inc., the largest provider of emergency housing for single adults in Philadelphia. The agency has been increasingly moving toward building more permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness in a city where houses have grown increasingly more expensive.
Hinson said that he’s been consulting with Hersh and others on a way forward. “We don’t have specifics yet for how to spend the money,” he said. “But we’ve been talking about certain models we think will work for permanent supportive housing.”
One idea is to create single-room occupancy units that would mitigate COVID-19, but also afford “dignity and privacy to folks facing streets homelessness,” Hinson said.
Another possibility is a so-called shared housing model. It involves placing three unrelated adults into one property. Each would have a bedroom, but share common areas, and, when possible, pay 30% of the rent. SELF manages 38 such properties already, Hinson said.
Beyond actual brick and mortar, there’s a need for supportive services for people experiencing homelessness, many of whom have behavioral health and addiction problems, Hinson said. The newest thinking in this area, he said, is to use coaches to help people concentrate on critical issues whose eradication could help individuals maintain housing stability.
“Our challenge as a city is how do we prioritize the needs of those experiencing homelessness in Frankford and Kensington, and in 30 encampments around the city,” Hinson said. “But I’m absolutely optimistic.”
While she agreed that it’s best to put the $42 million toward permanent housing, Jennifer Bennetch, an organizer of two homeless encampments in North Philadelphia and on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway last summer that served as protests to demand better housing, offered some skepticism:
“I guess I worry that the city could misuse the funding, spending on shelters and not putting people in permanent homes.”
Bennetch added that some of the money should be used to rehabilitate vacant public properties for those experiencing homelessness, adding, “Maybe there could even be a program to train and pay un-housed residents to do some of the rehab work.”
Asked what she’d use the HUD money for, Karen Pushaw, co-director of St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen in Kensington, said the city should pay closer attention to the elderly.
“There are homeless seniors, and seniors close to becoming homeless because they live in dilapidated homes they can no longer afford to care for,” Pushaw said. “People need money placed in maintenance funds so they can live in their homes, pay for repairs, and not be on the street.”
‘A national model’
Cities with larger homeless populations, such as Los Angeles and New York, will be getting a greater share of the rescue money, according to HUD.
Hersh said she understands that reasoning, but noted that Philadelphia has made greater progress than many other cities in some areas of homelessness mitigation, becoming a “national model in eviction prevention,” for example.
She added, “The administration could use us as a learning lab. The city has created an amazing infrastructure to deliver rental assistance, and has helped thousands of households owing back rent, saving them from eviction.”
She added that homeless numbers here are diminishing, something that will be proven at the end of the month when the newest statistics come out.
In the meantime, advocates and city leaders will await the new allotment of cash, and continue to hash out how best to spend it.
As Jeremiah sees it, there are better times ahead.
“It’s bold action,” he said. “This is the first time in my nearly two-decade career that I’ve been really optimistic about affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness.”