On April 9, SELF, Inc., One Day At A Time (ODAAT), and Goods & Services cohosted Voices of the Homeless City Council Candidates Forum at the historic Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. At the event, 22 City Council candidates got firsthand knowledge of the effects of homelessness and how people have overcome it and other social determinants of health.

As leaders of the host organizations, we are unapologetic advocates for and with those experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia.

With more than 1.5 million residents, Philadelphia is among the poorest big cities in the country. Our poverty rate has hovered at 26 percent since 2013. Our state minimum wage of $7.25 is well below the $15-per-hour livable wage most agree is needed. The median rent in Philadelphia for a two-bedroom is $1,782, which means most Philadelphians (56 percent) pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. Data compiled by Project Home suggests that there are only 41 affordable-housing units for every 100 extremely low-income households in Philadelphia.

Even though homelessness strikes people of all incomes, ages, races, gender identities, and sexual orientations, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, minorities are about one-and-a-half times — and black Americans three times — more likely to be homeless than white Americans.

With these statistics, it’s no wonder why the majority of the 150-plus people who attended the forum — many of whom were people with lived homeless experience — passionately shared their own personal stories and asked candidates directly about their plans to address homelessness.

Attendees wanted to know why the city hasn’t rehabilitated vacant, city-owned properties to help people experiencing homelessness and why the city hasn’t done more to address long-term employment issues. And they wanted to know why it seems a person needs a mental-health or drug-addiction diagnosis to get assistance with housing opportunities. They wanted to know what’s being done to address the long wait list for people seeking assistance from the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Candidates had proposed solutions, but most didn’t have answers to why the city hadn’t already addressed the concerns raised.

While city policies have led to 15,000 people receiving shelter, many still are turned away because of space limitations. Audience members living in city emergency shelters said issues such as overcrowding, untreated mental-health issues, and the mixing of those in recovery with those not in recovery work against them instead of helping get more people off the streets and into permanent housing, adequate employment, and treatment plans that help work for them.

Here is what we know for sure: Every person regardless of the zip code they were born in, their mental-health status, their use or nonuse of drugs and alcohol, the color of their skin, gender, or gender identity has:

  • The right to safe, affordable, permanent housing.
  • A right to be heard by those seeking to represent them in elected office and to hear their plans for lifting Philadelphia out of poverty.
  • A right to earn a livable wage.
  • A right to be connected to family and community regardless of their current state of housing.

Any plan to reduce or end homelessness must include explicit engagement with those experiencing homelessness.

Homelessness and the lack of strategic plans to address poverty and the effects of social determinants of health, particularly education and criminal justice reform, will be important issues when voters go to the polls on May 21. And candidates would be wise to remember: Many homeless people vote, too.

Michael Hinson is president and chief operating officer of SELF, Inc. Mel Wells is president and chief executive officer of One Day At A Time (ODAAT). David Tomlinson is president and chief executive officer of Goods and Services, Inc.