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Homeless advocate creating a shelter from the ground up in Upper Darby

Disheartened but not defeated, Stephanie Sena has resurfaced in Upper Darby Township a hero, starting a homeless shelter.

Stephanie Sena stands in front of the building that will house a homeless shelter she is creating in Upper Darby.
Stephanie Sena stands in front of the building that will house a homeless shelter she is creating in Upper Darby.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

When the world last heard from Stephanie Sena, she was being vilified in Kensington as an “elitist” Villanova University professor who had sued Philadelphia to defend street encampment of people who are homeless.

“I’ve come to represent all that’s bad and evil in the world,” Sena said last summer referencing neighborhood animosity toward her. “I’m too much of a lightning rod.”

Disheartened but not defeated, Sena has resurfaced in Upper Darby Township a hero.

County and local officials specifically invited her to follow her passion for helping those who are homeless, and create a homeless shelter from scratch near the 69th Street Transportation Center, a hub that attracts unhoused transients who travel to and from Philadelphia. Depending on the source, Upper Darby has 30 to 100 people a day living on its streets.

“Stephanie is fierce,” said Paulann Sabatino, a partner at Upper Darby Recovery Without Barriers, a nonprofit that helps people suffering from substance abuse. “She’ll advocate for the homeless tirelessly. She’s the first person we met who fights like this.

“She’s sincere, and we actually believe what she’s saying. We trust her.”

The same ideas and advocacy that got Sena run out of Kensington were precisely what Upper Darby wanted Sena to use to establish a shelter, county and local officials said.

Still, as skilled as Sena is perceived to be, starting a homeless shelter these days is the exception, not the norm.

“More shelters are closing than opening around the country,” said Eric Tars, legal director of the Washington-based National Homelessness Law Center, the only national legal group dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness. Aside from funding challenges, planned shelters face knotty zoning problems, and are voted or shouted down by people who don’t want such facilities in their neighborhoods, Tars said.

He added, “People believe shelters depress property values, but studies show they can actually increase them, finding usage for previously vacant buildings.”

Sena, 42, who’s in the process of moving from Queen Village to the Upper Darby area, hasn’t run a freestanding facility before, but she has extensive experience in issues of homelessness. She’s the founder of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that works with college students to provide shelter in church basements for homeless people during the cold months.

No resistance

What’s remarkable about the shelter Sena will be opening at the end of January is that so many people seem to be in favor of it.

“There has been no resistance to this,” said Monica Taylor, vice chairperson of the Delaware County Council. “The community was completely on board. The township government could not have been more helpful. It was a joint effort.”

Hafiz Tunis, who grew up in Upper Darby and is a member of the township council, said the community’s embrace of a shelter derives in part from advocates for the homeless who were “on us, demanding more services.”

Also, business people were growing tired of “the unhoused using alleys near stores as bathrooms,” Tunis said. “And they knew if people had a place to go to, these problems would stop.”

For his part, Tunis, whose family owns a Liberian restaurant in town, added that, over the years, he’s seen firsthand the need for food and shelter among those with the least.

“It hit me from all angles how much people needed help,” he said.

People contributing

The other day outside the terminal, as Sena was walking with her 13-year-old daughter, Sylvia, she ran into Salvatore Fusco, 60, a former roofer who’s lived homeless on and off for a while.

“Being homeless makes me go nuts,” said Fusco, wearing a Phillies jacket and carrying a Wawa bag.

Sena made an offer: “Sal, I’d love for you to stay with us.”

“Does it matter I go to a methadone clinic?” he asked. “It saved my life.”

“No, it’s OK,” Sena said, calming Fusco. “But we’ll ask people who stay with us to contribute in some way, and you can help with the upkeep as a roofer, if you want.”

Fusco smiled, liking the idea he could be of service while being helped. “I’ll see you soon,” he told Sena.

It took months, but Sena finally found a spot for her shelter within easy walking distance of the terminal. A former day-care center, the two-story brick building with 4,000 square feet cost $490,000, paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Delaware County will underwrite day-to-day activities at the shelter, along with help from HUD. Sena learned she won the grant to run the place in August.

To be called the Breaking Bread Community, the shelter will house around 30 people, living two or three to a room, Sena said.

The place will be low-barrier, meaning that people will be able to come and go without rigidly set times of when to arrive in the evening and leave in the morning, as is the case with most shelters. Upper Darby already has a more traditional shelter, known as Life Center, which houses 32 people.

The Breaking Bread Community will also include services to help people connect with agencies that deal with substance abuse issues, other health needs, and pathways toward getting their own homes.

“Stephanie’s facility will get you to all kinds of resources,” said Tina Hamilton, founder of Upper Darby Recovery Without Barriers. “People can just decide to sit with us, have a warm meal, and that’ll be amazing. If they don’t want to go into drug treatment, well, they ate with you and you built a relationship. They’ll come back for help when they’re ready.”

Ultimately, it’s creating a pathway to housing that is the truest way to help, said Vincent Rongione, Upper Darby’s chief administrative officer. “That’s why Stephanie Sena is so important,” he said, “as she addresses this homelessness issue that’s been festering for decades.”

Sena envisions the shelter as a place that will not only offer food and a bed, but will also raise political awareness among its residents and, she explained, “Eventually turn people into their own advocates.”