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Suburban Station getting a new stop: A service center for Philly's homeless

The 11,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to be finished by the end of the year. The goal is to have it up and running the first week of January, hopefully in time to provide shelter from winter's worst.

Thomas Smith, who identified himself as homeless, rests on a bench in the concourse beneath Center City.
Thomas Smith, who identified himself as homeless, rests on a bench in the concourse beneath Center City.Read moreJOSEPH KACZMAREK / For the Philadelphia Inquirer

Staying clean is a problem, said Iverson Furtic, 51, who's done it on and off for more than 30 years.

He was talking about the drug use he can't seem to beat, the addiction that keeps returning him to the street. Philadelphia social services set him up with a place in the city's Frankford neighborhood, but the lure of easy drugs nearby proved too powerful.

Sitting on a bench along Suburban Station's concourse, Furtic also talked about literally staying clean — how much a person without a home values something as simple as a shower.  A washing machine for dirty clothes. A meal. A place to sit down.

Those are among the basic necessities longed for by Philadelphia's estimated 950 people without even temporary shelter, he said — "Somewhere to go where you won't be looked upon like, 'What are you doing here?' "

A few hundred yards away, down a forgotten corridor among Suburban Station's warren of tunnels, the whine of buzz saws and power drills echoes. SEPTA workers are erecting the steel skeleton of a $1.4 million service center for the city's homeless — a place designed to offer all the things that Furtic said matter to someone living on the streets.

The 11,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to be finished by the end of the year. The goal is to have it up and running the first week of January, hopefully in time to provide shelter from winter's worst.

"We wanted to do something that would really help the homeless," said Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager.

Though it has the highest poverty rate among big American cities, Philadelphia has one of the lowest rates of homelessness, said Liz Hersh, director of the city's office of homeless services. Nevertheless, the number of people on the street is growing, she said, in large part because of the opioid epidemic. Along with the people without any shelter, Philadelphia has about 5,700 who live in shelters or temporary housing.

"Three-fourths have some kind of substance-abuse disorder or mental-health problems, and very often both," Hersh said. "It's a national crisis, and the wave has not yet crested."

Other factors contributing to homelessness include the cost of housing and budget cuts. Last winter, the homeless turned to transit centers more than usual because construction in LOVE Park and the Gallery left them fewer places to go.

Transit stations are obvious havens for homeless people. They're sheltered, safe, and have such amenities as bathrooms. The increase in the city's homeless population has led to more homeless people in such places as Suburban Station during bad weather — as many as 350 in one day, according to a count last winter. It's unusual, though, for a transportation authority to take so active a role in providing an alternative for the homeless.

"SEPTA is pretty unique in major city transit authorities' sort of embracing and stepping up to the challenge of homeless systems," said Laura Weinbaum, a vice president at Project HOME.

Officials aren't concerned that the service center will attract more homeless people to Suburban Station, Knueppel said; they are there already.

The city and Project HOME have sought for more than a year to create a Center City location where people living on the street could have their immediate needs met that could also serve as an entry point for more substantial assistance. SEPTA officials, meanwhile, received frequent complaints from commuters about the homelessness problem in the agency's stations. It became clear that interests were aligning.

Construction of the facility began last summer, with SEPTA and the city evenly splitting the costs of the significant cleaning and reconstruction needed in the space, which was last used about 15 years ago as a police substation.

"When we first went down there, it was suspended in time," said Darrell Clarke, City Council president. "It looked as if there was an evacuation. Coffee cups were still on the table."

He was skeptical at first, he said, but getting an elevator installed and getting approval from Project HOME encouraged him. And the location has the advantage of being in a place where homeless people already go for shelter. City officials and SEPTA police plan to reach out to inform the homeless in Center City about the shelter.

The space, which still has the green tile and street names on the wall from its earlier incarnation as a transit tunnel, addresses a need long unanswered in Philadelphia, Clarke said. As far back as 2012, when Philadelphia faced controversy over homeless people being provided food on the Ben Franklin Parkway, there has been a need for a daytime service provider in Center City. A number of other locations didn't pan out before SEPTA suggested its space.

The facility still needs furnishings and appliances, which Project HOME is hoping to pay for with a breakfast fund-raiser Nov. 6 at the Loews Hotel on Market Street. The goal is to raise about $500,000.

When finished, the new Hub of Hope, a name borrowed from a much smaller seasonal service center also in Suburban Station, will provide medical and psychiatric attention, legal services, showers, and laundry. It is expected to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week, with some weekend hours, year-round. Meal services will be available Friday through Sunday.  If nothing else, it will be a comfortable place for people to sit and feel safe. It will be staffed largely by Project HOME workers and volunteers.

Just as important, though, is creating an environment where people can stop worrying about the immediate demands of survival, organizers said. That may make them open to more comprehensive services to address the deeper causes of their homelessness.

"Many times, these are folks who have been extremely vulnerable over a long period of time," Weinbaum said. "If they come in, and we can nurture that feeling of trust, the hope is they will be open to other possibilities."