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Closing of Ridge Ave. shelter delayed as replacement plans taking shape

In a large room at the Ridge Avenue men's shelter in North Philadelphia, metal beds and mattresses are stacked in a corner. Lockers along a wall are open and empty.

In a large room at the Ridge Avenue men's shelter in North Philadelphia, metal beds and mattresses are stacked in a corner. Lockers along a wall are open and empty.

A year ago, the city announced it was closing Ridge. Big shelters are criticized for warehousing people - a point made by homeless people among the Occupy Philadelphia protesters, who preferred pitching tents at City Hall to staying in shelters.

But the plan to close Ridge has recently changed.

The shelter, which houses about 120 men, less than half the number of a year ago, will remain open at least through the spring, said Dainette Mintz, director of the city's Office of Supportive Housing, which funds shelters.

The city wants to replace the behemoth Ridge center with two 75-bed shelters. The proposal is to convert a women's shelter in North Philadelphia into a men's facility and to renovate a building in West Philadelphia into shelter space.

Mintz said negotiations were ongoing for the new facility, which needs to get zoning approval. She declined to identify its location, saying shelters remain a hot-button, "not in my backyard" issue.

"We're trying to be cautious and circumspect as we move forward and not fan the fire," Mintz said.

She said her office would approach the Zoning Board of Adjustments "fairly soon" and, at that time, would disclose the site.

"This has been difficult," Mintz said. "We had a number of properties that we weren't able to move forward on" because of community opposition.

City Councilman Darrell L. Clarke, who represents parts of North Philadelphia, said he was aware of the proposal on the table but had not signed off on it yet.

"There are a couple of things I need to have a better understanding of," Clarke said.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, whose district includes the neighborhood where the second shelter would be located, said she had been contacted by Mintz and supported her plan.

Across the country, the approach to dealing with homelessness has shifted as communities move away from stopgap solutions such as shelters toward permanent housing.

But the closing of Ridge has exposed the difficulty of finding permanent spots for men confronting joblessness, poverty, mental illness, or addictions - sometimes all at once.

Funding to support permanent housing is getting squeezed.

Philadelphia was awarded $22 million in 2009 from the federal economic-stimulus plan to "rapidly rehouse" people who were either in shelters or at risk of entering one.

Of that, $289,000 remains, Mintz said.

About 60 men at Ridge were helped by the program, getting individual grants of between $2,500 to $5,000 to help them overcome financial hurdles that kept them stuck in a shelter - such as paying off debts to utilities or covering money for security deposits for apartments.

"There's only a finite number of men at Ridge with a source of income and a shot at being able to live independently once the program there ends," Mintz said.

At peak times, Ridge has housed as many as 400 people. This time last year, the shelter had 300 residents; today, there are 116. As part of the city's planning to help people through the winter months, the shelter will be allowed to temporarily accept an additional 100 men.

Since the news of the eventual closing was announced last year, some individuals already have moved to other shelters or transitional housing programs. About 100 found permanent places to live, said Julius Jackson, the shelter's director who works for the nonprofit social-services agency Resources for Human Development.

Jose Espinosa, 58, was one of about 10 men to move into the Philadelphia Housing Authority's newly renovated Plymouth Hall apartments for seniors in North Philadelphia.

He had been at Ridge for two years, after losing his job as an insurance agent and burning through his savings.

Espinosa gets public assistance. In his subsidized PHA apartment, he pays 30 percent of his government income for rent. Espinosa is looking for work, but adds, "It's very difficult, particularly when you're much older."

For many of the men from Ridge, their transition to permanent housing is tenuous.

Thurman Kirby, 58, who has health problems after three strokes, gets by on a monthly $674 Social Security disability check. He received a federal rapid rehousing grant and used it to cover two months' rent for a one-bedroom in North Philadelphia. As part of the grant, half of his rent of $578 would be subsidized for a year.

But this February, Kirby is on his own. He has put his name on waiting lists for subsidized senior housing.

"I'm kind of nervous," Kirby said.

Only two of the three floors at Ridge are now being used as a shelter. Jackson, the shelter director, said staff was still trying to direct men to other facilities or housing.

"We've been successful in moving people out," he said. "The question is, can we sustain it?"