On a wicked night, the rain lashing the double doors of Old First Church at Fourth and Race, 30 men file into the social hall for a homemade spaghetti dinner, companionship, and eight hours of rest in a warm, secure place.
"It's not a shelter, but a home," says Villanova University junior Julie Ubriaco. "It is a place where respect is given and received."
The men, all homeless, are called "guests" and treated as such. Care and comfort are provided by an exuberant, dedicated, rotating cadre of 200 volunteers from Villanova, Swarthmore, Penn, Temple, and Drexel, who cook, dine with guests, play games, and converse, with three to five students spending the night every night.
Daniel Cho rode the train 45 minutes in from Swarthmore, then skateboarded from Market East. He arrives at Old First drenched, fighting a cold. This is finals week, an intense time, yet he's here to help.
"Homelessness is more of a complex problem than we believe it to be," says Cho, a junior. "Here, we try and make no distinction between the helper and the helped. We're learning from these people how service ought to be performed."
The Old First Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, SREHUP for short, opened last month, becoming the nation's second such student-operated facility, following the Harvard Homeless Shelter, founded in 1983.
The Cambridge, Mass., facility runs on a lottery, offering beds for two weeks. In Philadelphia, men are given a place to rest for six months, offering stability through the winter, which gives them the support they need to secure permanent housing.
A second Philadelphia program, also run by SREHUP, opens Wednesday at Arch Street Presbyterian Church, serving 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young adults, ages 18 to 24, who are without homes due to identity and family issues.
And a third Philadelphia facility starts in early January at Arch Street United Methodist Church, caring for 30 more men. SREHUP will run this facility as well, making the city a national leader in student advocacy for the homeless.
All three Philadelphia programs are the vision of professor Stephanie Sena, 32, who had the idea less than a year ago after hearing an NPR report on the Harvard shelter. Now, Stanford University is calling her, asking how the model she has developed can be re-created in California.
"Our goal is to help people transfer out of homelessness," says Sena, an adjunct faculty member at Villanova who will teach a course on the history of homelessness next semester. "Beyond providing housing for 70 guests, helping them transition from homelessness, my goal is to help students advocate legislatively for fair housing, to teach them how to engage in systematic change." She has raised $17,000 but could use more funds for facility fees, insurance, and security guards at two locations.
The guests traveled varied paths to the social room of Old First (official name, Old First Reformed United Church of Christ). One man says he has a degree from Boston University but shows middling success holding steady work. Another guest, a philosopher of the streets, attained his education from four stints in prison.
Half the guests have jobs. None has a job that pays enough to live independently.
"The students help break the monotony of being in the homeless state of mind," says night supervisor Andre Cureton, who was trained by Bethesda Project, which helps the homeless. "This space provides a comfortable atmosphere for the gentlemen. It's had a great effect on the guys."
Sena emphasizes that the programs couldn't succeed without partnerships with established organizations - Old First with Bethesda Project, and Arch Street Presbyterian with Foyer of Philadelphia, an organization that serves the young LGBT community. The Arch Street United Methodist facility will partner with Project HOME.
"The experts on homelessness were the people who told us to stay with the same guests through the winter, to help them attain their goals, finding housing, retraining, SAT prep classes," Sena says.
"The men save me seats at dinner, ask about my homework," says Emily Durgin, a Villanova senior. "When I think that my day is so bad, I know that their days may be extremely bad." She has been touched, she says, by the guests' constant generosity and grace.
"We believe, perhaps naively, that we can change the world. We want to give them hope, that people are rooting for them," says Villanova junior Taylor Cannon. She signed up after challenging herself to do something that made her uncomfortable. "Honestly, it turned out to be one of the most comfortable things I've ever done. College students are the perfect people to do this. We're used to working hard for no money. We're used to having no money. And we can stay overnight with little sleep."
Sena is committed to making a difference. "I think homelessness is a human-rights violation," she says. "It's all talk, unless you act on your ideas."