Whether you are a native Philadelphian or your’re from the cozy suburbs, the sight of homelessness probably evokes feelings of empathy. It is a pervasive problem, something many people witness everyday. Homelessness affects between 2.5 and 3.5 million people every year, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The Alliance said “the number of homeless people on the street continued to expand dramatically in the last decade, some estimate a 10 percent increase.”
Living in the city means seeing your share of homeless people on and off campus. There are several misconceptions about the homeless, including mistaking people as homeless when they are not.
“Rarely do we have homeless on campus, it’s a misconception. Most of the loiterers, panhandlers and solicitors are not homeless,” said Charles Leone, deputy director of Temple University Police Department. “Of the ones that are homeless, most are harmless.”
Leone said it is rare for there to be incidents with the homeless on campus that would warrant citing or arrest. There are “about a handful to a dozen cases each year, and usually it’s the same people,” he said.
The Temple Police takes a proactive approach to helping the homeless on campus.
“We volunteer to get them to a shelter,” Leone said. He said if they appear to have mental health issues they will offer to get them assistance if they seem open to help.
If a homeless person is acting in a way that may hurt themselves or others, the police can detain them and take them to undergo psychiatric evaluation, Leone said. This falls under the Mental Health Procedures Act of 1976’s involuntary emergency examination and treatment policy.
Temple Police frequently use the Temple Crisis Response Center at Temple University Hospital, Episcopal Campus when they do commit someone or have someone volunteer for psychiatric evaluation, Leone said.
Brook Zitek, medical director at the CRC said that altogether “five to 10 percent of people that come into the CRC [for psychiatric evaluation] are homeless.”
Zitek said the CRC has about 600-700 people come in for psychiatric emergencies each month.
“The patients are seen by a nurse and then a psychiatrist, from there we determine if they will be an in-patient or out-patient and if they are an out-patient, do they need housing?”
If they are homeless and mentally ill the CRC tries to place them in programs developed by the city, Zitek said, such as Community Health Centers or the Office of Emergency Shelter System.
“Schizophrenia is probably the biggest mental illness,” Zitek said. Other major problems that the homeless face are depression, bipolarity, substance abuse and anxiety. “If they have a substance abuse problem we send them to a recovery house, but they need a source of income, otherwise they have to go to a shelter.”
In July 2000, the National Alliance to End Homelessness announced plans to end chronic homelessness as part of its ten-year plan in ending homelessness completely.
The Alliance is “a nonprofit nationwide federation of public, private, and nonprofit organizations dedicated to advancing community-based solutions to homelessness,” according to the organization’s Web site.
Shortly after the Alliance announcement, the Department of Housing and Urban Development accepted that goal, according to HUD’s Web site.
“The Alliance recommends a ‘housing first’ approach for most of these families to get them back into housing, linking them with appropriate services and reducing their shelter stays to an absolute minimum,” according to its Web site.
This could save a lot of money in the long run because shelters are very expensive to maintain.
According to a University of Texas survey published in the Alliance’s Ten Year Plan to End Twenty Years of Homelessness, the annual cost of an emergency shelter bed is $8,067, some $2,000 more than the average annual cost of a housing subsidy.
Sgt. William Hill of the Central Police Division in Center City said that homelessness in Philadelphia is decreasing.
“In 1996 there were 850 homeless people on the street in Center City,” Hill said. “On a good day [now] there are 150 homeless in the Center City region.”
Many homeless people have started taking advantage of the housing and shelter systems.
“In September 2004 there were 2,440 people in some type of shelter housing system in Philadelphia,” Hill said.
Hill said that there are at least 15-20 programs in the city that provide aid such as housing, substance abuse counseling.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is in giving money to homeless people, Hill said. “A lot of the people outside Wawas or 7-Elevens do have some kind of addiction, alcohol or substance. When people give them money, nine times out of 10 you’re helping feed their addiction.”
Josh Chamberlain can be reached at Joshch@temple.edu.