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A new shelter for people experiencing homelessness opens in Upper Darby

“It’s a dream come true,” said Stephanie Sena, a professor at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law, and a long-time advocate for people experiencing homelessness.

Stephanie Sena, a Villanova University professsor, has created the Breaking Bread Community shelter in Upper Darby.
Stephanie Sena, a Villanova University professsor, has created the Breaking Bread Community shelter in Upper Darby.Read moreErin Blewett

Like a new homeowner, Stephanie Sena grinned delightedly at the renovations being made in the Upper Darby building she’s converting into a homeless shelter.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Sena, 43, a professor at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law, and a longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness.

After more than a year of work and planning underwritten by $2 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as from Delaware County and state legislative sources, Sena’s project — the Breaking Bread Community shelter — will be ready to accept its first 17 overnight residents Monday night.

They’ll dine on a donated Filipino buffet and, most important, get a chance to get out of the cold and warm themselves in the three-story, 4,000-square-foot space, which was most recently a day-care center.

Throughout the new year, work will be continuing at the site, which will ultimately be able to house at least 30 men and women. Wheelchair users as well as some individuals with pets will be welcome; both cohorts that have traditionally found it difficult to find shelter.

Breaking Bread Community is one of just two overnight shelters in Upper Darby, a community of more than 80,000.

What sets Sena’s place apart is that it will include space for advocates who will help guests with services that can lead to permanent housing. Law students from Villanova, as well as members of the school’s Anti-Poverty Society, will volunteer aid.

“This shelter is needed because we’ve seen the number of people living homeless in Upper Darby increase in the last year,” said Paulann Sabatino, a partner at Recovery Without Barriers, which will also have representatives at the shelter helping guests with addiction. Her Upper Darby organization finds beds for people in drug treatment centers. It also feeds those experiencing homelessness every week at the 69th Street Transportation Center, a hub for those living unhoused. Sabatino said the number of those gathering for food daily has increased from around 80 to nearly 150 since 2021.

Local officials are quick to praise Sena, who is 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 people who are without homes during the cold months.

“Stephanie Sena has done some amazing work here,” said Monica Taylor, chair of the Delaware County Council. “She’s an asset to this county.”

Hafiz Tunis, a member of the Upper Darby Township council, said that a remarkable aspect of Sena’s work is that very few people have voiced opposition to the shelter.

“There’s almost always a NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] crowd,” Tunis said. “But people from across party lines are supporting this shelter, because they see the need.

“Also, they admire Stephanie for committing a big part of her life to this. People here know she has the experience to get this done. She got people and veterans from all over town to help work, paint, and to move in stuff.”

Sena said that she’s been driven for years by the “massive need” to aid those experiencing homelessness.

While mental illness and drug addiction are typically blamed for homelessness, Sena explained, families are more frequently being forced into the streets by rising housing costs.

Complicating the picture are closures of many shelters around the country, including a facility in Norristown, said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center, and a Mount Airy resident.

The homeless shelter on the grounds of Norristown State Hospital (the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center, or CHOC) shuttered because the shelter’s lease was up last summer, and the state was returning the land to Norristown, advocates said. Officials in the municipality say the land will be developed to enhance Norristown’s tax base — not to establish another shelter.

Many congregate shelters also have shut down because of the pandemic, Tars said.

Further, he said, “we continue to see communities resist opening new facilities. As a result, we’re far below the capacity that’s needed.”

While Sena and Tars believe homelessness is on the rise, COVID-19 has complicated any census-taking throughout the United States.

“There really hasn’t been a reliable official count since before the pandemic,” Tars said. In 2020, many counts were canceled, he said. In 2021, mostly partial counts were done. This year, many communities didn’t submit any data, due in part to the rise of the omicron variant, Tars said.

Regardless, advocates say, homelessness does not appear to be abating. And, new shelters like Sena’s are broadly welcomed.

“I trust Stepanie’s vision,” Sabatino concluded. “She’s trying to not just shelter people, but to get them back on their feet.”