Most students maintain the impression that the city they live in has one of the worst homeless situations in the country. Walking down Fairmount Street and anywhere past Diamond on North Broad, it would seem that way. But according to Robert Hess, deputy managing director for the city, Philadelphia has the fewest people living on the streets out of any major U.S. city.
This level of success can be attributed to the 29 homeless facilities available around the city. These non-profit, city-funded organizations succeed in taking the homeless off the streets during the harsh winter weather conditions and provide them with beds and meals, in addition to other recovery-related resources. These shelters are able to reach their goals due to their highly committed employees and volunteers.
Joel Ford has been the director of the Ridge Avenue Center for a year and has worked in the field of social work for over 20 years. The RAC, on 1360 Ridge Ave. is a program of the Resources for Human Development Corporation and one of their largest units. RHD has 200 units on the East Coast and 3,000 employees. Its corporate office is in Philadelphia.
Ford says that being a member of RHD allows for a great deal of independence, as they control their own budget and staff. Like all homeless shelters though, the RAC is city funded.
During the winter, the RAC manages an average of 450 residents and walk-ins. During the summer, that number decreases to an average of 225. The facility only caters to single adult males. There are separate facilities for homeless men and women in the city.
When a patient first comes to the RAC, he goes through a process of intake, assessment, and referral. The latter step might result in being sent to a more appropriate facility or having specific medical or psychiatric recommendations made. All patients are offered residential and medical services. In addition, the homeless have access to a complete array of hygienic products.
The RAC is equipped with multiple psychiatrists who work toward each patient’s mental stabilization. A primary aspect of the recovery process is support groups and substance groups. These avenues of rehabilitation guide the patients to once again integrate with society.
The RAC serves three meals a day and approximately 3,200 meals a month. In addition, patients are always offered sandwiches, transportation and subway tokens.
There is no limit to how long a homeless person may stay at the shelter. The RAC operates on “short term” and “long term” cases, where the first defines a stay of 60 to 90 days and the latter refers to a case requiring up to 18 months of residence.
“We do not rush them,” said Ford. “We’re willing to walk with them as long as they are willing to continue walking.”
Ford continued by saying that the shelter’s mission is to save lives; thus, they never close.
“We will not allow the homeless to freeze during the winter,” Ford said.
Regarding the issue of the causes of homelessness, Ford highlighted the misconceptions held by most of the community. He pointed out that no one chooses to live on the street; their conditions are mostly caused by untreated illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress.
Instead, he accredited the problem to the lack of availability of housing and how unaffordable it is to people without professional skills.
The RAC is mostly comprised of an employed and fully paid staff; however, volunteers and interns are also utilized. Ford said that their highest volunteer pledge comes around the holidays, yet for the rest of the year, they mainly cater to social work majors who are fulfilling their curriculum.
“All students need to do is express a desire to help out; just let us know,” Ford said.
Ford cited the work as greatly rewarding and admitted that his experience has caused him not to take aspects of his life for granted.
“It proves that people can overcome homelessness,” Ford said. “First we must lower our definition of success.”
Anyone interested in volunteer work may contact Joel Ford at (215) 236-0909 or visit www.rhd.org for employment listings.
Jessie North can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.