After a relationship ended three years ago, Michael Thomas had to move out. He found himself homeless for the first time in his life.
Although he worked for a caterer, the work was seasonal and the income inconsistent. He bounced around friends’ homes, slept at a shelter in West Chester and warming centers in his native Phoenixville, stayed outside or in ATM alcoves for months, and lived at hotels when he could pull together enough money.
“Like a lot of people who experience homelessness for the first time, I was scared,” Thomas, 47, recalled. “I didn’t know where I was going to sleep, what I was going to eat, none of that.”
Then Thomas found the nonprofit Open Hearth, which aims to help residents of Chester and Montgomery Counties end the cycle of homelessness and become financially independent. He now rents an apartment with assistance from Chester County and works as a recovery specialist in West Chester, using his own experience with addiction and 10 years in prison to help others.
“God has been good, and I’ve worked hard with the support of a lot of programs,” Thomas said.
He’s one of hundreds who have moved off the streets over the last five years in the Philadelphia suburbs. Since 2011, Chester County officials and community organizations have been pouring time and money into reaching what is a lofty goal even for one of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest counties: ending chronic homelessness within 10 years.
Now, on the eve of 2020, Chester County’s self-imposed mid-2021 deadline is looming, as communities across the country struggle with the entrenched problem. According to federal guidelines accepted by advocates, ending homelessness means it is “rare, brief, and non-recurring.” The city of Lancaster and Bergen County, N.J., are two of only four communities in the United States formally recognized by the federal government for ending chronic homelessness. Bergen County was the first in 2017, following its own 10-year campaign.
“It’s a designation that’s pretty tough to get to,” said Patrick Bokovitz, director of the Chester County Department of Community Development. “We certainly feel with where we are now and some of the resources we have now, that we can achieve that 18 months out.”
Officials across the Philadelphia suburbs say more collaboration and coordination among county agencies, community groups, and nonprofits has made their work more efficient, and allowed them to house more residents and reduce barriers to housing. Typically in Chester County, about 10 men, five women, and five families at a time are either living in hotels using government or nonprofit assistance, or are living somewhere not suitable for habitation, Bokovitz said.
In Chester County’s latest move toward its goal, the county this month joined Montgomery and 55 other counties in using a statewide call center, PA 211, to connect people who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless to local housing and human services.
In Chester, Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, the total number of people classified as homeless during annual counts has dropped from about 2,100 in 2014 to roughly 1,500 in January 2019. Officials are anticipating another drop during next month’s count.
“I’ve never seen the momentum we have now,” said Stephanie Miller, who has worked at the United Way of Chester County for more than 14 years and is a senior director. “I feel like we’re on the brink of solving something that in our county shouldn’t be a problem.”
Looking for solutions
As communities large and small across the country try to reduce homelessness, some have created catchy slogans to go with the renewed focus, such as Chester County’s “Decade to Doorways” and Montgomery County’s “Your Way Home.”
In the Philadelphia region, counties have bolstered call centers that assess and prioritize residents’ needs and direct them to housing and human services. In keeping with evolving best practices, counties have over the years adjusted their strategies to concentrate on “housing first” — getting people into homes before requiring them to be sober, for example. Homeless services are tailoring assistance to individuals, and aiming to help residents before they become homeless, advocates and county officials said.
Montgomery County, for example, has provided legal representation to certain renters in danger of eviction since January 2018, and Bucks County is piloting a similar program in Falls Township.
Better data-gathering has helped human services agencies improve their work, said Jennifer Lopez, executive director of the West Chester-based Friends Association for Care and Protection of Children and member of a Decade to Doorways committee.
"We really began looking at what the best practices are, what evidence-based practices there are out there, and trying to align the whole service system with those,” Lopez said.
Richard Baxter, resident director for men’s shelters and transitional housing for the nonprofit Good Samaritan Services, said that while Chester County officials have good intentions, he is skeptical, because homelessness “is really complicated.”
"And that’s why to have the audacity to say you’re going to end homelessness in 10 years is unrealistic,” Baxter said.
“I think things are moving along, that the county is doing a good job," he said. "But in my heart of hearts, I would rather they say, ‘We’re going to house 100 people,’ rather than saying, ‘We’re going to end homelessness in 10 years.’ I don’t think you could end homelessness in a hundred years, to be honest.”
What does homelessness look like?
Some causes of homelessness have defied simple solutions, Lopez said — such as stagnant wages, lack of affordable housing, and systemic racism that has depressed family wealth and caused intergenerational poverty.
Different agencies have different definitions of what it means to be homeless. For example, people who are sleeping on a friend’s couch are not considered homeless, according to federal definitions. And if someone is in a tenuous housing situation, it could only be a matter of time until things take a turn for the worse and the person loses their home.
The cost of housing also is rising throughout the region. In Phoenixville, for example, where county funds have helped redevelop the former steel town, houses that rented for $900 a month five years ago now go for $1,200 or $1,400, Baxter said. Residents move because they can’t afford the rent and then can’t find another home.
The growing cost of living in Chester County also is driving middle-class residents to look for ways to cut expenses, including looking for cheaper housing that might otherwise have gone to lower-income residents, said Cheryl Miles, director of permanent housing services at Good Samaritan Services.
Jeffrey Fields, director of housing services for Bucks County, said state money through the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund is doing more to move the needle on homelessness than any other state initiative in the last five years. The money has helped the county pay for programs that aren’t eligible for federal funding, make its call center more responsive, bolster services at shelters, and increase street outreach, which “makes all the difference” for people living outside, Fields said.
Officials throughout the region also are trying to address one of the most persistent barriers in the fight against homelessness: the lack of affordable housing as the region continues to grow.
Kelly Raggazino, executive director of Open Hearth and governance board chair for Chester County’s Decade to Doorways program, said some people are still homeless six months after getting a coveted housing voucher because they can’t find landlords to rent to them.
“If we don’t have housing and we don’t have people willing to rent to people who need support and need housing,” Raggazino said, “we’re going to be at this bottleneck where we are now.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 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.