Hailed as an “unprecedented” and “miraculous” act to battle homelessness, the federal government is awarding 863 housing vouchers to the Philadelphia Housing Authority by July 1, an allotment worth $10 million.

Never before has the Department of Housing and Urban Development granted vouchers exclusively to people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia, local experts on housing and homelessness said. Vouchers are traditionally given to people who are on a waiting list for housing, not all of them necessarily homeless.

Currently, there are about 6,900 people in the Philadelphia homeless system, not including an additional 1,000 individuals living on the street, according to Michael Hinson, president and COO of SELF Inc., the largest provider of emergency housing services to single adults in Philadelphia.

On Wednesday, Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of PHA, said: “We haven’t received this level of support in terms of vouchers from the federal government before — ever. This is brand-new, frankly unprecedented.”

About 70,000 vouchers nationwide are being underwritten by the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.

Describing himself as “excited,” Jeremiah added that the United States is “experiencing a sea change where the federal government is now prioritizing the affordable-housing crisis as part of the national agenda.”

“I’ve been in this business 20 years and I have never been more optimistic about what I’m seeing. Homeless families and those at risk of becoming homeless in Philadelphia will soon have an opportunity for permanent homes.”

Equally exuberant, Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, said, “It’s such a relief and it’s so wonderful to be talking about having what we need to help people experiencing homelessness.”

Hersh said that under mandates established by HUD, priority for the new vouchers will be given to adults 65 and older who are experiencing homelessness and have underlying health conditions making them vulnerable to COVID-19.

Vouchers pay the rent

Most voucher systems throughout the United States operate in a similar fashion: Recipients take vouchers to landlords who are paid federal money through PHA on the first of every month. Voucher holders never lay out more than 30% of their own income if they have one, whether it’s from a job or social service benefits.

Currently, the average rental payment for each voucher is $740 a month, according to PHA figures, which show there are 19,000 voucher households in Philadelphia.

The waiting list for the voucher program is 8,800 individuals and families, said Jeremiah, who added that the list has been closed since 2010.

Separately, PHA offers 14,000 public housing units for which vouchers are not required. Some 40,000 people are on that waiting list, which has been closed for five years, Jeremiah said.

He added that the Biden administration has budgeted for 200,000 more vouchers nationwide next year. It’s unclear what Philadelphia’s cut would be.

Making a difference

Among those in Philadelphia who make a living helping people who are homeless, reaction to the voucher news has been unanimously positive. Supportive statements read like glowing film reviews:

“This is miraculous and fantastic, and it will make a difference in so many lives,” said Dean Beer, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project, which offers legal assistance to people experiencing homelessness.

“Now, more than ever, we are encouraged to see the federal government increasing investment in ... housing solutions,” said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME, the nationally known Philadelphia anti-homelessness nonprofit.

“Housing vouchers are ... a much more immediate solution than building affordable housing,” said Kathy Desmond, president of the People’s Emergency Center, a West Philadelphia nonprofit that offers housing, job training, life skills, and other resources for those who are homeless. “We are excited by the commitment.”

Advocates particularly heaped praise on Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for seeing a problem others had not.

“We finally have an administration in Washington that is ... [demonstrating] the innovation and urgency that many of us here in Philadelphia have been hoping for,” Hinson said.

He added that the administration also has indicated it might be injecting still more dollars to help eradicate homelessness through its plans to improve America’s infrastructure.

“You never heard that before,” Hinson said. “This is how you answer a racial equity crisis and the homelessness crisis.” The city’s homeless are disproportionately Black, local experts say.

Indeed, Jeremiah said, the administration has proposed $213 billion for infrastructure needs in public housing.

“We haven’t seen this level of support from Washington in decades,” he said.

Jeremiah singled out HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge as being particularly sensitive to those experiencing homelessness. Initially, anti-hunger advocates were upset that Fudge wasn’t named secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Biden, because of her previous work battling hunger as a member of Congress from Ohio. That criticism has ended.

“I’ve got to commend and applaud Secretary Fudge for putting together this bold voucher proposal,” Jeremiah said. “She understands the pivotal role housing plays in our lives.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.