Student-run shelter opens in Old City.
It’s November 2, the second night that Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP), the second student–run homeless shelter in the country, has been open, and volunteers, clad in college sweatshirts, dash in and out of the kitchen. As the buffet table grows heavy with food, they slide spoons into platters of pasta and answer when asked what’s for dinner. Around the communal table, guests and volunteers talk about the Dallas Cowboys. The shelter, a linoleum room in an old brick church, is located on 4th and Race Streets in a touristy part of Old City, near museums and the Liberty Bell.
After dinner, the room is calm. One of the men staying there, Chaz Colones Sr., has headphones in his ears, and the salsa music coming from them can be heard across the room. Elbows in, hips swaying and feet speedy, he’s dancing alone in the corner. “I was in a halfway house, I was doing great,” he says, cha–cha–ing. “I was looking forward to playing baseball again.” Then he had a lung injury, which squashed his baseball game and acted as a major setback. Chaz wears a shirt with tattoo art screen–printed on the chest. He says his family has been begging him to “grow up” for the sake of his three children.
In another part of the room, Eric Cherry sits on a chair against the wall reading a book. It’s black and red with an all–caps title: A Killer’z Ambition by Nathan Welch. Eric says the book is about gang violence in Washington DC, and he says he can relate. “I’m a carpenter,” he says, but he lost his apartment because he’s been out of work. For him, SREHUP represents an opportunity to get his life “back together.” “Plus,” he says, “It’s starting to get cold out, so, you know.”
Steve Cooper is the one whose Cowboys jacket seems to spark conversation, maybe even a little controversy. He has an especially soothing voice, and he says he just got out of federal prison. “I wasn’t a drug user,” he says. “I was the opposite. A drug dealer.” He says he could easily go back to his old neighborhood, to what he was doing before. He admits that staying at a shelter is humiliating, “but when you know you want to live right, it don’t matter,” he says.
Mark Scott sits near Steve. He’s tall and his hair pokes up in exuberant spikes. When he moves, he takes up a lot of space. He says he’s been a friend of the church for 20 years. “They’ve been dying to get me in here for this thing,” he says. “So I decided to finally grace them with my presence.” He says that people want to know other people’s stories, especially those of homeless people. “Me personally, it’s a bunch of really bad choices, revolving around the liking of drugs and alcohol,” he says.
He makes small gestures to the other people in the room. “I know most of them, I won’t say a good majority, because I can’t stereotype, but most of them, probably have the same story that I have.” Mark also has a degree in Economics from Boston University.
All of these men and the roughly two dozen others have been selected by the Bethesda Project, a Christian homelessness organization that’s handling their cases, to spend the winter in the relative warmth of SREHUP’s new shelter.
Brianna Fram, a College senior studying Biology, has been thinking about opening a student–run shelter since she first heard the idea her sophomore year. As the President of Penn Student Advocates for the Homeless, she’s collaborated with students from universities around Philadelphia to bring SREHUP into fruition. For a while, Brianna merely let the idea of the homeless shelter sit. She saw Penn Haven, a proposed shelter that was to be run through Penn, fizzle and fail. But in the spring of her junior year, she began asking around again, with help from her friend Patrick DeGregorio, an ‘11 Penn graduate now working at a chemical company in Philadelphia.
They wanted to determine if a shelter on Penn’s campus was even feasible. “The hurdles seemed insurmountable,” Brianna said. To start a shelter from scratch near Penn would cost at least $100,000, and that’s before annual operating costs. Plus, they didn’t perceive much administrative support, something that would have been essential. According to her, Penn doesn’t want to attract more homeless people to campus.
This summer, just before giving up, Brianna and Patrick stepped off a SEPTA train into the 8th and Market Station and bought a copy of One Step Away, a weekly newspaper run by people experiencing homelessness. In it, they learned about Stephanie Sena, a history professor at Villanova University.
As the final project for a class she taught, Sena asked her students to ponder a big problem in the world and propose a solution. Many of them wrote about the challenges of poverty and homelessness. Over winter break, says Sena, those ideas materialized, and starting this past January, Sena and her students got to work establishing the second student–run homeless shelter in the US, after one started by Harvard students.
Brianna and Patrick reached out to Sena, attracted by organizational support and like–minded students. SREHUP expanded from an entirely Villanova operation to one that now includes students from Penn, Drexel, Swarthmore and Temple. At the start of this semester, Brianna established Penn’s chapter of SREHUP and began recruiting students to volunteer. So far, she has about 15 active volunteers, but she’s hoping for at least 40, especially for when SREHUP opens two new shelters. On December 1, at the current location, SREHUP will add 10 beds for LGBT youth, and on January 1, they’ll open a shelter for 30 women at Arch and Broad.
Volunteers at SREHUP work either the dinner or the overnight shift. For dinner, they arrive at 6:30 p.m. to cook and serve and inevitably sit around the table with the guests, eating and chatting. Brianna says one night she played Scrabble with them, or rather, they taught her how to play. Things got competitive, out came the Scrabble Dictionary, and now Brianna knows that “qi” is in fact a word.
At 10 p.m., the second group of volunteers arrives. By this point, the guests have already folded the dinner tables, mopped the floors and laid out their mats. They sleep on a few inches of foam, with blankets and pillows. The volunteers take turns staying up in another section of the room and sleeping in a nursery room elsewhere in the church. At least two volunteers are up at all times, along with a security guard that SREHUP pays for, the only non–volunteer that works at the shelter.
By 4:30 a.m., the volunteers are all up to make breakfast and coffee for the guests. By 7 a.m., they head back to their respective campuses, usually for class, but sometimes for a much–needed nap. The shelter doesn’t operate during the day, when guests with jobs go to work and others are picked up and taken to programming for homeless people run by the Bethesda Project.
According to Project H.O.M.E., a Philadelphia homelessness advocacy organization, there are about 4,000 homeless people in Philadelphia, which far outnumbers the available spaces at shelters. During the winter, shelters are always at their highest capacity because of the weather.
In recent years, funding for existing programs has decreased further as a result of budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels. The space that SREHUP now uses for its first shelter, which houses 30 men, had actually been used in the past to house the homeless through another organization, but budgetary constraints forced it to close early last year. SREHUP was able to scoop up its facilities and supplies, like the mats, and now the doors are open again.
Since lack of funding is one of the primary issues surrounding homelessness, SREHUP was able to open as quickly as it did partially because it operates under a relatively small, all–volunteer budget. Brianna estimates that the current shelter, which houses 30 men, requires $15,000 for its season, which will run until March, and that’s without unforeseen costs or extra supplies. With the addition of the two new shelters, that number will shoot toward $33,000. Right now, Brianna is working to submit grant applications to increase funding to SREHUP.
Penn freshman Skyler Butler wants her volunteering at SREHUP to help her pop the Penn Bubble. She grew up in Brooklyn and punctuates earnest assertions about helping others with a nod of her head and “word.” In a cab on the way down to the shelter for her first night of volunteering, Skyler admits she’s a little nervous. “Honestly, I’m kind of tired, and I’m just afraid it’s going to be a lot of physical work,” she says.
Skyler sees the opportunities she and many other Penn students have been given. “It doesn’t seem fair or right to have all the advantages and to just use them for myself and not for people who never had the same privileges I have,” she says. Skyler has friends in Brooklyn who are teenage transients. For them, the shelter system didn’t offer a transition to a more settled life, just some much–needed immediate respite. She hopes that SREHUP’s plan to serve the same people for the duration of winter will lend itself to moving guests permanently off the street.
Brianna says it’s this goal that keeps the SREHUP emphasis on cultivating community. Already, she says, “it feels like people are settling in.”
Esther Baranov, a Penn senior who’s been involved since the start of the semester with Penn Student Advocates for Homelessness as support services director, agrees. She says one of her first shifts at SREHUP began with the understandable but nonetheless uncomfortable awkwardness of 40 or so near–strangers milling about a room. “But after an hour,” she says, “we were all warming up to each other.”
One of Esther’s roles at SREHUP, other than volunteering for shifts, is to secure food for the dinners and breakfasts that SREHUP serves its guests. She and other students have been hurriedly contacting restaurants and companies asking for donations. They’ve been met with plenty of generosity, but it’s not dependable. As of now, they’re constantly in talks for the meals planned for a few days after the one they’re serving. Just like the many homeless people around the city, SREHUP suffers from long–term food insecurity.
SREHUP was opened in a rush, before every detail could be finalized, and it’s a student project, so it works on a student schedule. This is a shelter operated by people sturdily in the ‘learning’ stage of their lives, people who are balancing a huge project with a full course load. This constant scramble, at least for the time being, is their reality. As the student volunteers hustle to organize and staff their shelter, Philadelphia grows colder. Soon the sidewalks that many of their guests slept on last winter will be coated in snow.
Baranov recalls a conversation with a SREHUP guest about a storm. “He was saying, ‘Do you remember that snowstorm last Saturday?’” she says. Of course she did, snowfall in October is rare. “He was like, ‘Yeah, some of us guys were out there in that storm, sleeping out there,’” she says. “That was before the shelter had opened.”
At least this winter, this won’t happen to the 30 men currently housed in the shelter, but SREHUP is still hoping for more.
Leah Steinberg is a College sophomore. She co–edits the Ego section.
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