(Orginally published in the 3/27 issue)
The wind was cold and stinging at 1:20 a.m., Monday, March 5.So were the cops.
Moments after the transit police had gutted
Market East Station, hurling the homeless lives at the mercy of a quasi Code Blue chill, an overlooked homeless couple propped open the door.
The drafty lobby then swallowed about a dozen weathered street denizens and let us settle around the walls of the Homeless Hilton.
Not everybody was asleep, however.
After a half-hour of silent slumber, we awoke to the buzzing sound of the elevator.
Eyes widened and pulses pumped with each floor the elevator descended. The door slid open, revealing two unyielding officers, armed with pots and pans. The badge-wearing noisemakers – unable to understand why we reentered after being instructed
not to – drove home their point by driving us back onto the streets. The homeless huddled close in the lights from the sirens. Many trembled at the idea of waiting for an outreach van that would never show. Others were simply trembling from the cold.
Elnora Clinton, 37, meanwhile, was seeing
red and fogging the outside window of the patrol car with endless bluster. Clearer were the motives of conman Alan Geist.
Still suspect of my journalism credentials, Geist and others tested my identity, prodding me into an interview with the cop.
Once I showed the officer my student I.D., he lowered his window at the risk of losing
his hearing to Clinton’s screaming. The officer had some venting of his own to do.
“We use outreach which, you know, is nice that they’re out there, but it’s not enough of them,” said the transit officer, who chose to remain anonymous. “You try to call them in, try to get them to the homeless shelter, but now I’m getting information that they’re not letting everybody in. So I have to figure out why. It’s Code Blue; they shouldn’t be turning anybody away.”
Kristen Edwards, program manager of Project H.O.M.E.’s Outreach Coordination Center, isn’t pleased with the situation either. She said while the center’s funding has remained stagnant, the city’s homeless population hasn’t.
“I think we can always use more resources
to help people who are homeless,” Edwards said via phone in The Temple News newsroom.
“There’s been an increase of people
living on the streets for the last six years and we’re working with the same resources and outreach services.”
Edwards said the city-wide organization,
which coordinates outreach to those in need, dispatches only one van past midnight when it’s above 20 degrees. On nights when the wind-chill temperature is below that mark, a Code Blue alert is issued and an additional five-seat van is deployed to rescue some of the city’s estimated 4,000 homeless people.
At 1:40 a.m. we learned that our chances of being taken to a shelter were cut in half.
Although our breath could be seen better than the black ice, there was no Code Blue alert – or van – forthcoming, the officer said.
“[Code Blue’s] not documented; it’s not clear,” he said. Katrina Pratt, the director of the housing assistance unit in the office of supportive housing, declined to comment.
The officer said we wouldn’t need transportation to get to Grace Cafe at Arch Street United Methodist Church, an emergency drop-in center he had just arranged for us to stay at.
It wasn’t good news for everyone.
“We go to the church to get help and they turn us away like we animals,” said Clinton, referring to past experiences. “So we like ‘This is the Lord’s house and ya not going to let us in? God said don’t turn anybody away. They turned us away, man, and it be freezing out here.”
While following the footsteps of four other homeless people, including her fiance’s, Clifton Ware’s, 21, the unemployed
mother of eight grew even more enraged thinking about past sleeping arrangements
inside the church.
“They treat us like animals. They got everybody lying on the floor,” she said. “They can’t buy cots? The city’s making all this money building buildings and they’re not doing enough for the homeless out here. It’s unfair. Half of them is a paycheck from being homeless themselves.”
Clinton said her homeless living began when she was kicked out by her landlord a year ago, refusing to provide any further details.
She said she collected enough disability money to afford a modest place, but one that was too cramp for her children, who now reside at her aunt’s. “I didn’t want to live like that. I wanted to live somewhere proper,” she said. “I need a house. I’m a mother with eight children and it’s time for the city to give me a house.”
While ambling through red-lights on our way to Broad and Arch streets, Clinton found herself stuck in a Catch-22. “How can you get a job if you don’t have a permanent address?” she asked. “How can you go a shelter when they treat you like you’re in jail, like you committed a crime? They’re treating us like a piece of s–t.”
Clinton said the walk would not be worth it for any food critic. Grace Cafe is open from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. to about 75 guests who choose from its selection of coffee, soup and cold sandwiches – either sour bologna-and-cheese or peanut butter-and-jelly.
“[They] come out here and bring food so they can get a tax write-off for the homeless people out here,” she said. “And that’s not fair neither.”
Phyllis Ryan Jackson said she thinks something should be done about it – like removing the dish and starting from scratch. Jackson, executive director of the Philadelphia Committee to END Homelessness, centers the committee around the idea of ending homelessness by providing a house rather than a shelter’s temporary refuge and meal.
“I think the shelter is damaging to everybody. The only model they have for shelters is prison so that’s bad and especially when circumstance says you didn’t kill somebody,” Jackson said, whose privately funded committee boasts an 81-percent success rate and currently
helps 41 families.
“You could have the prettiest shelter in the world but it’s still not your home.”
Philadelphia’s three emergency drop-in centers are considered upscale compared to the shelters, the source of Billy Foster’s contempt.
“We don’t get a bed until 1 o’clock in the even – …,” said Foster, 53, pausing before continuing, ”