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One Step Away: Finding warmth in Suburban Station

For Joel, it's a place to sit. The air from the heaters keeps the walkways warm and free of ice. The wind and snow from the streets are blocked by large, heavy doors. In this weather, the concourses under the city's central business district become a safe haven from the outside world.

As temperatures slide back into the mid-20s again this month, Philadelphia's Suburban Station is one of the few places where people experiencing homelessness can take shelter. Accessible 24 hours a day, the network of walkways and waiting areas offers an attractive space for those with nowhere else to go.

Noticing this pattern, homelessness assistance agencies joined together to open a drop-in engagement center called "the Hub of Hope" in the station's concourses. The hub, which reopened this winter, allows organizations to provide services at a location that is accessible to the people who need them most.

"I like to hang around in Suburban Station," says Joel, sat on top of a bag of belongings and wrapped in a large padded jacket. "It's cozy and comfortable down here."

Joel has spent over 30 years living in and out of transportation centers across Pennsylvania. Originally from Guyana, he made a living in America as a factory worker, a builder and a truck driver, before finally running out of work around 10 years ago. "I've been seeing people come and go for years," he says, and then smiles.  "There are people from all walks of life down here."

Joel is one of hundreds of people that the Hub aims to reach this winter now that it has resumed activity in the station following a delayed opening at the beginning of the year.

"We're thrilled to be back," says the Hub's project coordinator, Karen Orrick. "Having a presence here helps to bring a lot of people out of the woodwork. Some people who wouldn't otherwise seek out help can drop in right here in the station."

Operating since 2012, the Hub's small office sits in what used to be a hair salon below Two Penn Center. It opens its doors every weekday, from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., from January to April. The result of a collaboration between a local non-profit organization, Project HOME, and transit agency SEPTA, the Hub marks the first partnership of its kind in the United States. But it also collaborates with a vast network of healthcare providers and social service organizations across Philadelphia, that Orrick says allows staff to offer services that are targeted to the individual needs of the people they are trying to help.

Onsite medical assessments are provided by volunteers from collaborating organizations, including Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania. The assessments can result in referrals to hospitals and clinics around the city. Staff at the Hub also make placements of the station's visitors to emergency shelters and organizations offering more permanent housing solutions. The project has made over 500 such placements since its first season three years ago.

"My hat goes off to the people at Project HOME," says operations inspector for SEPTA police Steven Harold, who has worked closely with staff at the Hub of Hope. "They have not only the skills and education, but the dedication and the heart to have a tremendous impact on people's lives."

Harold says that SEPTA's partnership with Project HOME has improved relations between officers and homeless individuals in the concourses. "We want to make sure people are safe," he says. "We can say to them, 'Here are your options.' We direct them to the Hub of Hope so they can get some advice."

The project builds upon a considerable success record for Philadelphia as an advocate for people experiencing homelessness. While most major cities have seen increases in recent years, the rate of homelessness has been steadily declining in Philadelphia.

Even the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) seems to be noticing Philadelphia's, and SEPTA's, successes. Recently, the FTA jointly awarded a $40,000 grant along with the American Public Transportation Association, for a review of major cities' management of homelessness by transit agencies. Harold will be on the research committee. The approach to homelessness in Philadelphia, he says, is "stellar compared to the way other cities manage."

The comparison has been particularly striking in the United States in the last year, as cities around the country have struggled – and often failed – to find a balance between the convenience of passengers using transportation hubs for commutes and the safety of people using the stations for shelter.

As 2014's notorious polar vortex threatened the East Coast last February, the New York City Police Department put forward a plan in collaboration with the Metropolitan Transit Agency that effectively proposed forcing people out of New York's subways. According to The Huffington Post, the agency aimed to "improve conditions for other riders." (Following several days of high-profile, negative media coverage, this particular plan was quietly dropped.)

And last summer, San Francisco's BART police (an agency with a history of violence and antagonism, including the 2011 shooting of a homeless individual named Charles Hill) made the headlines again for sweeping arrests of people lying down in the city's subway stations. According to Jennifer Friedenbach, director of national advocacy group The Coalition on Homelessness, police misused a section of the state penal code stipulating that "willfully blocking the free movement of another person in a system facility or vehicle" constitutes grounds for imprisonment.

These sorts of policies quickly turn into a vicious cycle, says Harold, adding that "you end up moving people from one station to another" without providing any long-term solutions.

But despite its progress, Philadelphia also has its challenges. Last year's Point-In-Time count, which estimates the homeless population through the work of volunteers combing the city's streets, counted over 5,500 people living on the street, in cars, abandoned buildings, train/bus stations, and other places not meant for human habitation. Whether or not the situation has improved over the last few years, this estimate still marks thousands of people living in insecurity.

Furthermore, despite the available emergency shelters, overnight cafes and safe havens, there are few places that provide all-day refuge, and the Hub of Hope is no exception. After testing longer hours in 2013, opening at noon and closing at 8 p.m., the Hub noted that all-day operation made it more difficult for staff to monitor the concourses and identify "hard-to-reach individuals" in the station. This year, between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., the Hub's doors are closed.

"Sometimes I go over to the church south of here during the day," says Joel, who has visited the Hub on a number of occasions. "I hang around there, get some food and then come back here in the evening."

"When I was having housing issues, where I was staying, I couldn't go there till a certain time at night, so I didn't have any place to sleep," remembers One Step Away vendor September. "So it was either fall asleep outside or go into the train station to sit."

"Sometimes people don't have any place to go," continues September. "They just want to be warm. They're still people."

Orrick says that the location for the Hub is not secured next winter, and that she and her colleagues are "exploring a number of different strategies" to find a more permanent solution for the Hub in the future. "We would love to stay," she says, adding "we're trying to connect with local businesses and landlords, because we can obviously be more effective if we can plan in advance."

"It's a bit of an uneasy balance at times," says Harold. "Retailers and investors are not always very happy having a homeless satellite center next door."

Ultimately, though, no matter how accessible people find the Hub of Hope, not everyone can or wants to leave the transit concourses. Some people find the overnight shelters unsafe and occasionally violent. Some people find it difficult having to move around from shelter to shelter. Or some, like Joel, don't want to be required to remain in one place.

"I go where I want to go," he says. "Sometimes I go up to Chester or Trenton on the train, and hang around there. But I always know where I'm going."

Over the next few weeks, a Code Blue will be in effect whenever “real feel” temperatures drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. In these conditions, homeless individuals will be allowed to remain indoors in emergency housing during the day, and outreach groups will provide transportation to shelters around the city. But even so, Suburban Station remains a refuge, with its wooden benches and long walkways that present the opportunity for the kind of rest that many people take for granted.