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Philadelphia looks for ways to better help its homeless

May's street survey of homeless people in Philadelphia - the most extensive ever - was triage to determine who needed help first.

May's street survey of homeless people in Philadelphia - the most extensive ever - was triage to determine who needed help first.

The findings were Dickensian: 528 people were living on the edge in parks, stairwells, doorways, alleys, and SEPTA concourses. They were encamped under the Market-Frankford El and I-95 overpasses.

Of those, 88 percent - or 466 people - had mental-health illness, addictions, or both. In addition, 64 elderly men and women who were holed up in shelters were physically vulnerable and at increased risk of death.

Now, six months later, how many of those 592 people surveyed have been moved into homes and given help?


"We can do much more," said Marcella Maguire, director of homeless services for the city Department of Behavioral Health.

Maguire said there was "quite a disconnect" between the resources available to house people and the number needing help.

After the survey, the city came up with an additional 125 housing units to relocate people. The homes, plus supportive services, including mental-health counseling, are financed through a variety of federal sources serving the homeless, military veterans, and people with behavioral issues.

In addition, Project HOME, a nonprofit that houses and helps the homeless, has just opened a 53-unit rental apartment building in the Tioga section of North Philadelphia. Half the units will be subsidized, which will help move some people off the streets, Maguire said.

"We're really trying to struggle through how to prioritize help for those who are most vulnerable," Maguire said.

The survey was part of a national campaign - "100,000 Homes," coordinated by the New York nonprofit Common Ground - to identify and help the homeless.

In Philadelphia, the May 15-20 survey was the most thorough examination yet of the street population. From 4 to 6 a.m., 250 volunteers stopped, questioned, photographed, and chronicled the health histories and lives of homeless people.

"We went to every corner of Philadelphia," Maguire said.

The result was the city now has a registry that identifies those who have been out on the streets the longest and who may be at greatest risk of dying.

"The 100,000 Homes survey really focused us in a wonderful way and caused us to reassess how we prioritize resources for the most vulnerable," Maguire said.

Among the findings:

268 (51 percent) reported health conditions associated with a high mortality risk and were deemed vulnerable.

140 (27 percent) had been to the emergency room or hospital more than three times.

70 (13 percent) were military veterans.

134 (25 percent) had been homeless for more than 10 years.

Local nonprofits are working closely with the city to coordinate services and housing efforts. When vacancies become available at transitional shelters or temporary havens, outreach teams try to bring in people from the streets.

In addition, the nonprofit Pathways to Housing will manage the people moving into the 125 new units made available as a result of the survey. The group will find apartments for people and provide health and social services for them to live independently.

Philadelphia spends about $98 million a year on homeless housing and services - two-thirds of which comes from state and federal sources. The amount has held steady despite budget cuts.

"Unfortunately, all we can do is identify resources that we have and what is already available," said Dainette Mintz, city director of the Office of Supportive Housing. "There is just a finite amount of what you can fund."

This winter, the city will work with nonprofit service providers to concentrate efforts and resources for people living in the SEPTA concourse at Suburban Station in Center City.

"There are conversations going on now," Maguire said, "on how do you cast the broadest net?"