After Leola Howell and her 4-year-old daughter became homeless last May, they stayed on Howell's friends' couches for eight months, fruitlessly looking for a subsidized accessible housing unit of their own.
Howell, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, hadn't slept in a bed in months and her daughter, Rylee, was struggling at her pre-K school. It was time for a last resort: a homeless shelter.
"She needs consistency. I needed sleep," Howell, 32, said.
On Jan. 29, Howell and Rylee went to the city's homeless-shelter intake center in Center City but were turned away. Not only were the shelters full, but Howell was told the system could not accommodate the personal-care aide she requires 16 hours a day because the lower half of her body is immobile.
After advocates and attorneys got involved in Howell's case, citing federal and state law allowing care aides inside homeless shelters, city officials scrambled and found a solution by Feb. 12. Staff at the Stenton Family Manor in Germantown would open a former storage room as a bedroom for mother and child, and the aides — paid for by the state — would help Howell go to the bathroom, get dressed, and manage other daily tasks.
Once she was in the shelter, Howell found a slew of problems, from not having adequate bars in the bathroom to not having a toilet seat, toilet paper, or soap. And the permanent low-income housing available didn't have big enough door frames for her 24-inch motorized wheelchair (or even bigger 30-inch one). Or the bathrooms weren't big enough.
Howell's story highlights the city's struggle to house tens of thousands of poor Philadelphians who can't afford surging rents and a public housing system that is maxed out. Add disability to the mix and it's even more difficult.
"I just feel like the runaround and the disconnect between city agencies has been — it's really pitiful," said Kendra Brooks, an education advocate who has been a mentor of Howell since the two worked at a nonprofit serving the disabled several years ago. "I understand homelessness is a major crisis here in the city in general. But just for city services to not be connected enough to speed up this process … just people not talking to each other."
City officials declined to talk about Howell's case. But Liz Hersh, director of the city's Office of Homeless Housing, said the city's 3,360 beds for emergency homeless housing are almost constantly full — sometimes over capacity.
So "offline rooms" are turned into bedrooms in a pinch, as happened with Howell.
"We're nervous about expanding the shelter system," Hersh said. Instead, the city is looking to add more temporary housing that could serve as a bridge between homelessness and permanent subsidized housing or public housing.
One of those temporary housing programs, called Rapid Rehousing, provides a subsidy to the tenant to find an apartment or house with a mix of federal, state, and city money. Hersh said the city expanded the program from 400 to 500 available units this year.
Hersh, like many of the advocates, said there was a serious need for permanent affordable housing.
Nancy Salandra, director of independent living at the advocacy group for the disabled Liberty Resources, said 16 percent of the city's population is physically or mentally disabled. And yet there aren't enough public and affordable housing options for the disabled.
"We always have on our list close to 100 people trying to get out of nursing homes" and into independent living, Salandra said. "It's constant."
In fiscal year 2017, which went through the end of June, 479 individuals who identified themselves as disabled were accepted into the city's emergency shelter system, 6 percent of the 7,903 people served that year. So far in fiscal year 2018, disabled people make up 8 percent of the 4,535 people who have been admitted to shelters, Hersh said.
"No one should be homeless, but someone who is physically unable to manage without the accessibility of an aide should never be in that situation," Hersh said. "From my perspective this is a much bigger problem and it's very frustrating."
Marsha Cohen, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project, said that it's not just disabled people who are having a hard time finding shelter space. She said that dozens of families with children get turned away daily.
"My educated guess is that [there are] 30 moms, many with little children, who have nowhere to go. It's been like this for months," Cohen said, adding that the situation has continued to worsen. "There is like a six-week waiting period. … It's absolutely maddening."
Hersh said her office doesn't track wait times, but she didn't dispute Cohen's figure.
The waits are affected by the length people stay in shelters, she said. People are staying an average of five to six months at a shelter. Some — like registered sex offenders who are in men's-only shelters — stay a year or two because it's hard for them to find jobs and housing.
Howell, however, says she hopes she doesn't stay in the storage room — an 8-by-12-foot room outfitted with a bunk bed and a regular bed — at Stenson for that long.
After becoming pregnant five years ago, Howell moved back in with her grandmother, Leola Wallace, who had a Section 8 voucher for an apartment at the Avenue in East Falls. The apartment they lived in had a leaky sink, a hole in the wall, and other problems that went unresolved by their landlord. After complaining to the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which manages the city's subsidized housing program, the authority gave Wallace 90 days to find a new apartment, Howell said.
The housing authority, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the specifics of Howell's case.
After not finding a wheelchair-accessible apartment that was suitable for both Howell and Wallace, who is 90, the family split up earlier in May. Wallace found a senior living apartment and Howell stayed with friends while continuing to look for housing, until she entered the shelter system.
"I'm here because I have nowhere else to sleep," she said, noting that she's applied for every housing program available to her. Howell and her daughter are on a waiting list for 20 public housing or affordable housing projects. Various nonprofits and city agencies have been trying to find her housing, but so far nothing has clicked.
"It started with me, but it's not even about me because someone else is going to come in the same situation just like me and they have this," Howell said. "If I don't fight for them, who's going to fight for it?"