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South Philly has a growing, hidden homeless population — and almost no services to help them

While visible encampments have bubbled up around transportation hubs, outreach workers say more vulnerable people are making shelter in hard-to-spot pockets of the neighborhood.

Mike Sojo, 43, of South Philadelphia, who is homeless, talks about living in a construction pipe near the Walt Whitman Bridge.
Mike Sojo, 43, of South Philadelphia, who is homeless, talks about living in a construction pipe near the Walt Whitman Bridge.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

As dusk closed in, Scott Miller prepared for another night in the acres of industrial yards and overgrown thickets near the Walt Whitman Bridge — inside the massive, rusted pipe he had made his home.

Stacked like logs and large enough to stand up and stretch in, the pipes, left over from some forgotten construction project, now house a small community. The homeless men and women who live inside them call them “the Tubes.”

In his tube, Miller kept his bike and clothes. Around his neck, he wore a plastic crucifix. He prays to God on the coldest nights.

“I ask him to send an angel down here to keep me warm, to help me out, gimme shelter,” he said.

The camp has its longtimers. There’s Miller, 49, who grew up on nearby Marshall Street and has lived in the camp for two years. There’s Mike Sojo, 43, who lived on Bigler Street before becoming homeless six years ago. He keeps his tube meticulously outfitted with a couch and leather chairs, a well-made bed, and a commode with a candle and a small shrine to St. Anthony, the patron of lost things.

But more and more these days, new faces are coming through the Tubes.

Like the tattooed South Philadelphian in his 30’s who recently moved into the pipe above Miller. He is battling heroin addiction and had until recently been sleeping on his parents’ porch.

“A lot of nights,” he said, “I sit up there [in the pipe] and cry myself to sleep.”

The newest arrivals

The camp’s newest arrivals represent the shifting landscape of Philadelphia homelessness. In the last year, officials say, the number of people living on the streets of South Philadelphia has jumped from 15 to 45.

That number might seem small. But it means that South Philadelphia’s homeless population has tripled in a year — a rate unmatched by any other section of the city except for Center City East. And outreach workers say they believe closer to 70 people are sleeping outside in the neighborhood — one without walk-in shelters or respite centers.

Part of the increase is due to the way homeless people can be pushed out of neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

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In recent years, the city’s encampment resolution program — built on concerted outreach and prioritized services — has shown some success in clearing homeless camps in Kensington and Center City. In Kensington, almost all the residents of four major camps entered at least short-term treatment or housing, one study found. Advocates have criticized the efforts, including last month’s clearing of an encampment outside the Convention Center. The sweep violates recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and advocates argue it would leave people in the camp more at risk of contracting the coronavirus, either in the city’s crowded shelter system or isolated, far from help, on the street.

One result of the clearings is that they have led some people with serious addictions or mental illness who aren’t yet ready to come inside — or who prefer life on the streets to the stretched-thin resources on offer here — to seek places to hide.

While visible encampments have bubbled up around transportation hubs in South Philadelphia, outreach workers say more vulnerable people are making shelter in hard-to-spot pockets of the neighborhood: In tents buried in the brush along the Delaware River. In campsites tucked along the railroad tracks, or under I-95. In the Tubes.

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But there’s a second force driving the increase in homelessness in South Philly — exemplified in the stream of new calls coming into the nonprofit Project HOME’s Homeless Outreach Hotline, about people sleeping on stoops and in alleyways along the neighborhood’s residential blocks.

Many of them are addicted to opioids, and newly homeless in the neighborhoods where they were raised, a wide swath of the city between Washington Avenue and the stadiums whose size belies the tight-knit nature of the dozens of small communities that compose it — everyone from old-school residents to emerging immigrant communities and a growing number of young professionals.

South Philly is famous for taking care of its own. But in this case, the neighborhood can’t. Outreach workers and advocates say the area doesn’t have the resources needed to meet the emerging problem.

State Rep. Liz Fielder, whose district includes most of South Philadelphia east of Broad Street, says her constituents want to help. They see something beyond a growing homeless population: They see people they know.

“The concerns the neighbors and community leaders brought to me was that they know these folks who are living in the parking lot or on the park bench,” Fielder said. “It’s someone who their child went to high school with or someone they went to high school with — former neighbors.”

In recent weeks, Fielder has brought together community members and city officials to discuss what’s needed.

» READ MORE: In South Philly, a long-hidden heroin crisis can’t be ignored anymore

“Whether that’s providing mental health services, beds, recovery, focusing on housing problems, working with other people to identify gaps [in services],” she said. “We need to be doing more — or something different.”

Liz Hersh, the city’s director of homeless services, said that while the city’s new homeless numbers will not be finalized until April, they show that homelessness in Philadelphia is decreasing.

Still, the small influx of people in South Philadelphia poses a challenge because there’s little infrastructure in place there to support homeless people.

It’s far from an impossible task — though one that’s been recently overshadowed, like so many other things in the world, by the coronavirus outbreak. Still, city officials said this week, efforts continue to reach people in South Philly and across the city, and outreach workers are even using the crisis to connect with people who may have otherwise avoided help.

“We are starting to understand that there is a trend happening” in South Philly and sending outreach teams to address the problem, Hersh said. “It just takes us a while to be able to have a system response. It is like trying to turn a really big ship.”

Wanting to feel safe

A good part of Jonathan Juckett’s job has become knowing where to look. Where to find the tents in the winding brush off the Delaware River trails, or in the backwoods of FDR Park. How to spot the newcomer sleeping rough on some side street.

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The other part of his job is getting to know the people inside those tents and sleeping bags. Soft-spoken with a bushy red beard, Juckett coordinates outreach efforts for Project HOME.

He knows some of those now living in South Philly from earlier outreach efforts in Center City or Kensington — people who headed south when the city closed camps there.

“This comes from a place of wanting to be somewhere they won’t be bothered — someplace where they’ll feel safe,” he said, on a recent night-shift ride through South Philly.

There are new faces from the suburban counties, some who sleep in the tents along the river. They panhandle along the interchanges and travel back and forth to Kensington or to drug markets in South Philly. And they camp deep in the brush, sometimes with only their tent tops poking out. So well-hidden, Juckett said, that he believes some were likely missed during the most recent homeless count.

But many are just from the neighborhood, he said. They are newly homeless, sleeping on porches of houses they once rented or owned — or living in tents and cardboard boxes under I-95, in plain sight of family and neighbors. Many are reluctant to leave the neighborhood they know, even for shelter or services, he said. Most are battling opioid addiction, with families who have kicked them out, but whom they stay close to, still.

“Because their families may let them in when it’s really cold — but not otherwise,” Juckett said.

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Like Michael Daly, 25, who stands outside the Walmart most days and holds a cardboard sign that reads: Homeless. Hungry. Anything helps. He said he grew up on Two Street and had been living on the streets after becoming estranged from his family. He hadn’t gone far from home. He sleeps in a tent behind the Acme, only heading to the downtown shelters when the temperatures dip below freezing. It’s safer behind the Acme, he feels.

“I’m from the neighborhood. Some people help me out because they know me,” he said. “It’s kind of really embarrassing. To see people, and they look down on you and they don’t understand. They don’t look at you like a person.”

And there is Gina Webb, 29, who was living in a tent in a patch of woods near the entrance of the Walt Whitman Bridge. She said she grew up near Seventh and Wolf and had for a long time slept in the streets of her childhood neighborhood. She still goes back to the neighborhood daily, she said, knocking on the doors of her old neighbors, asking for help.

“If it wasn’t for my last name, I’d be dead,” she said on a recent day. “Because everyone knows me, and they know I come from a good family. They help me, they give me a dollar here or there. They know what I’ve been through — and they know what I can be.”

Addiction, to opioids, mostly, is the common thread between both those from outside South Philly and the people who grew up in the neighborhood and now sleep on its streets, Juckett said.

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“It takes time to make forward progress in so many of these cases,” he said. “So, you try to build up people’s trust. Not only to trust in you, but to want more for themselves. People need something to hold on to and remember who they are.”

Most days, Juckett coordinates about 28 outreach workers through the city Department of Behavioral Health — with only two workers on the overnight shift — all tasked with canvassing the city, and responding to hotline calls from all over.

“As we as a community push homeless people out into the neighborhoods, it makes it harder for us to do our jobs,” he said. “It makes it harder for us to find where people are staying and build up relationships. And it causes situations where people move into tents. In Center City, people are more likely to go into a shelter than someone who lives in a tent in South Philly.”

Homeless encampments form because people on the street crave community and companionship, just like anyone else, said Carol Thomas, the director of homeless services at Project HOME. But amid the opioid crisis — where using drugs alone can mean a fatal overdose — being in community with others is a matter of life and death.

Nothing to be ashamed of

In a community that has long preferred to keep its problems private — and where stigma and shame over addiction and mental health issues can cut deep, Dave Holloman, chief of staff for the city office of homeless services, said more outreach is needed to let South Philadelphians know how to take advantage of existing city services for treatment and housing.

“To make them aware that it’s nothing to be [ashamed] of — every family has some form of substance abuse or behavioral health challenge,” he said. “If you don’t provide educational and awareness tools, people start to build their own narrative.”

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And those narratives — as the eruption of protests last month over a proposed supervised injection site in the neighborhood showed — can quickly turn poisonous. But so far the conversations with the community over rising homelessness have been far from that, Holloman said. Instead, they’ve focused on “how can we get help and be a help.”

“The most important thing to me is myth-busting,” he said. “There are so many stereotypes associated with shelters and other kinds of resources that aren’t true.”

For her part, Hersh said it’s too early to say exactly what resources, like a shelter or meal sites, would be the right fit for a community as big and diverse as South Philly.

“They call it South Philly, but it’s not monolithic,” she said. “It’s a variety of neighborhoods, old and new, figuring out how to get a foothold.”

The conversations with Fielder and the neighborhood groups will be key in figuring out a way forward, she said. It’s better when the neighborhood takes a lead in these conversations, she said.

» READ MORE: Could Philly City Council block supervised injection sites? Legislation advances out of committee.

In the meantime, she said, the department will deploy additional social workers and other staffers dedicated solely to the small encampments in South Philadelphia.

“Outreach, outreach, outreach, that’s our front line — finding out who’s out there, what do they need, and how can we get them in,” she said.

On a rainy day early this month, outreach worker Edward Dover made his rounds through South Philly. They take longer and longer these days. At Front and Reed, he talked with Christopher Buccieri, 38, who lives under the I-95 underpass with his twin brother. They grew up at Seventh and Oregon. Buccieri says these days, there are so many new faces on the streets that panhandling has become difficult.

Then Dover made his way to the Tubes, to check in on the community living in the pipes. He met with Scott Miller, still wearing his plastic crucifix. Dover had recently secured him an apartment, but Miller was still returning to the Tubes every day.

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Dover was getting to know the tattooed man, the 30-something from the neighborhood, and another new face, a man who said he preferred the Tubes to city shelters. Mike Sojo, the camp’s longest tenant, helped introduce the new faces. He knew, from all the young people he had met in the streets, that there would be more to come.

“And I’ll be here to greet them,” he said.

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