Philadelphia and its homeless

I say first that there are quite the number of homeless shelters in the city of Philadelphia, with majority located in the Northern Liberties, Olde City, Center City East, Center City West, and University City areas. One particular shelter, which is located somewhere off of the Broad Street and Callowhill Street intersection, is the key subject in this blog entry.

I have the mind-set that losing your own living space and having to relocate to a homeless shelter for a roof over your head and hot water is not the most pleasant experience in one’s life, though for those who see this as an ordinary pit-stop in life, it does suffice for the time; but there are also those who have made an internal decision that this is a place to live and belong. Those who go days without showering. Those who walk past a hiring job agency, continuing to Love Park to panhandle for money that they will later on give to the drug dealers for their daily high. Those who depend on the area churches and other missions for clothes and food. Those who repeat this cycle year in and year out.

I will always remember my first time having to relocate to a homeless shelter for a roof and hot water. I arrived in the area almost late, 10-ish at night if I may. And by that time, cold and light rain drops started drizzling on my freshly cut head as I  hustled to my destination. As I walk, I’d take my mind off of the rain by thinking of a plan on how I was going to get back on my feet and make this situation impossible to repeat; but every time I’d look up or out my peripheral and catch the view of rain drops falling in the street lights and the lights on the outside of businesses, the water felt wetter and colder, and the faster I’d walk. I’d arrived eventually to my destination to the doors being locked. There were people outside that also must have missed the final hour of the shelter allowing homeless in for a meal and a bed. Some were rolled up in worn and torn blankets hugging the walls of the outside of the shelter trying not to catch the falling drizzle, some were conversing with one another while smoking Newport cigarettes keeping company, and others just roam the streets and alleys nearby. I happened to ask one of them of the time that they would reopen the doors, and I was told,06h:30am. 

When the time arrived to open the doors, I and the people that were outside, proceeded to enter the homeless shelter. Stepping into the building, the first thing seen, an area caged off holding numerous black bag and suitcases distinguished by a sticker with a unique name and number. There had to be about 250 bags total in the caged off area. Anyso, we were told to make a line against the wall running parallel with the cage, the line would eventually move and lead into a big room with about 20 tables and 100 chairs, the line would not move however until 07h:00. 

I want to describe the “big room” if I may for a more clear depiction. This big room serves a majority purpose as a “waiting area” for the homeless. A place for those with nothing to do, to sit a waste time away. You can either read the books that you have, listen to your radio, or lower your head into your arms folded on the table, and sleep. Along with the tables and chairs is a broken ice machine, two trash cans, and four closed circuit cameras on each wall of the waiting area.

This particular shelter employs a series of curious individuals. Very few of them have permanent jobs doing absolutely nothing there but talking to the homeless about how “Jesus Christ is telling you to change your ways” and “You’s all being captured by the devil”, etc. And the other chunk of employees are “former” homeless who applied for work in this shelter. I just call them “volunteers”. Some do laundry, some work in the kitchen, and some provide security to the building, all changing shifts and jobs eventually. They work long hours, receive little pay, and get first dibs on any new clothes coming in before the “current” homeless. Now, the requirement for this job, you must have completely changed your ways and see things and treat people how God sees things a treat people. But like reality, you always have the certain few that abuse the power granted and go about things confusingly. An example of some of the behaviors will be located in the paragraphs to come. 

The 07h:00 hour has arrived, and the line occupied by me and the other twelve homeless grew to about 30 people. The line, without hesitation, glided into the waiting area; the stench in the air thickens as the tables fill with homeless. Imagine sitting at a table that would generally be suitable for eight individuals, and there is double that amount per table. You have someone to your left who didn’t shower, someone to your right has rancid breath and thick globs of black residue under the fingernails, and the person sitting across from you picks his nose and eats the boogers without fear and proceeds to lightly drum on the table with the same hand. The volunteers open the kitchen doors, walking out with pitchers full of water; some with ice, some without. One volunteer calls up a group of homeless, by table, to form a line; leading into the cafeteria for one tray (usually containing a generous bowl of grits and a bagel with a questionable date) and one four ounce cup for the water. Personally, I’d eat the bagel since it wasn’t made in the kitchen, someone would eventually ask for my grits. The trays would most of the time be half clean, cups would have the evening before’s food in the corners, and they’d give 15 minutes to finish your food, regardless of health condition. 

Being at a homeless shelter, you will come across a great selection of individuals with very different, but, similar situations. Those who were just released from prison and have nowhere to go, those who collect a Government check but get high habitually, those who just get high habitually, those who are on the run from law enforcement in other cities and states, and simply those who hit a snag and need a place to fix their broken airplane for their flight the success (Like I). To some people, being in a shelter kills all remaining hopes for a positive coming-out-of, and they are resulted to committing crimes and other things in that nature to accumulate money and product. Stealing from the nearby Wawas and 7-Elevens, stealing from other homeless, even strong-arm robbing the tourists that visit this beautiful city. And also there are individuals who are criminals, and are not homeless, who drive to the shelters to recruit certain homeless who are eager to make a quick dollar, to “return some items” for them and collect a refund. I’ll give an example;

There’s this guy who drives up to this shelter and recruits certain homeless to return (stolen) tools and other items to a series of Home Depot stores around the city. They are to go to the Home Depot customer service desk with items in hand and request a refund. If the items are approved in processing and they have proper identification, they are given a gift card with a refund on the card. Refunds would usually range from $400 to $3000. The guy collects the card and pays the homeless for the job. Before actually going to commit the job, he asks if you want to make a quick $100? But after the job, you get $20 at the most, and he collects about ten of these gift cards everyday that he decides to recruit homeless and commit the jobs. Little that most know, this guy has a small group of homeless that he employs to rent a moving van (Like a U’Haul), drive out of the state to other hardware department stores (Like Lowes Home Improvement), and steal thousands of dollars in tools and other items at a time. He is nowhere near the moving van from the point of arrival, to the risky departure. He sits in a car with another criminal buddy, on the opposite side of the parking lot from the van, and he communicates with his recruits by phone. He instructs “the homeless” to go into the Lowes, fill the cart to the top with drills, saws, etc., and rush the cart out of the entrance and to through the sometimes crowded parking lot to the van. Load the stolen goods into the van hastily and make their way onto the interstate. (These are homeless who just wanted to make some money) The brains of this operation sits in another car, because he knows that this job includes a high risk of be chased by law enforcement. He uses the same crew and the same van to commit the same job at numerous hardware department stores in the tri-state area before calling it a day and guiding them back into the city, the back of the can filled with stolen goods from the numerous stores hit by “the homeless”. .. I remember one morning at the shelter, I am sitting at the table, eating a bagel and reading the Philadelphia Metro Newspaper. And behold, a small article some pages in titled, “U’Haul van robbers crash with Delaware State Trooper”. All I could do at the time was think of the homeless, and them just wanting to make some money.. You see, he doesn’t tell you what kind of job you will be doing until you get to the destination. He takes advantage of people who have nothing, and are eager to make something. (In my recent blog searching, I have uncovered the full name of this criminal responsible for the entire operation. I will not however be posting it in this blog for my own safety.)

Anyways, back to the shelter..

Meal times are usually 07h:00 for breakfast, 12h:30 for lunch, and 18h;30 for supper. Portions of food are always small, and often are suspect, leaving the homeless to eat nervously. There may be some homeless who were unsuccessful in their plans for getting simple things like food for the day are very hungry by supper time. However, this shelter stops serving food at 19h:00, and those who haven’t eaten are just out of luck until morning. They sit in the waiting area with growling stomachs and watering mouths. Now what I do not get about the “volunteers” is that one particular area of the waiting area may have vacant chairs and tables, but the “volunteers” exit the cafeteria and proceed to sit at the tables that are crowded with homeless, big over-stuffed plates in hand, eating slow, talking loud, and work their hardest to attract the attention of those who haven’t eaten and are very hungry. When they proceed to ask for some food, the “volunteers” smile, and say that the kitchen is closed. Some “volunteers” will eat a certain portion of their big plates, and knowing that some of the homeless are hungry and will eat their leftovers, they still dump the food in the trash. Just terrible. After supper, the homeless who have applied for a bed on the third floor of the building, wait in a line in front of the staircase leading leading to the third floor of the shelter. Those who are applying for a bed form a line leading in the opposite direction to the office of the managers of the shelter. Wait-times vary anywhere from one hour to four hours. Once registered into their log entry, you make your way up the staircase to the third floor. There sometimes may be homeless with conditions that restrict them from using a staircase; and there is an elevator, but it’s “strictly” for employees only. So even the homeless with the condition must use the staircase.. 

Once upstairs, you hand one of the volunteers a ticket with your bed number on it, you will then grab a piece of soap (sometimes a 3-inch rectangle), and walk into a big room, filled with about 100 bunk-beds. The ceilings of this room hold numerous closed circuit cameras, some being directly overtop a bunk. You tell another volunteer your bed number, he hands you a towel (barely big enough for the body of an average man), and you proceed to your bunk to strip of your clothes and proceed to the showers. 

Now the shower’s about as big as half of an average living room of a house. There are twelve pipes from the ceiling, and at the tip of each pipe is a (I don’t know what to call it) but it spits a thin stream of water. Each homeless stands under each pipe (usually about twelve at a time in the shower). You’d have to face the wall to prevent any water splashing off of another’s body into your eyes, mouth, nose, etc. Very unpleasant. Almost 200 homeless on the third floor and all are required to shower, but most break this rule because the hot water in the showers lasts for about 30 minutes, with some taking 10-15 minute showers. The water gets ice cold, and others are turned off, and refuse to shower in the water. After showering, you dry off, and proceed to your bunk. A volunteer does not cut the lights until 21h:00, some homeless use this time to sell some of the candy bars, chips, and sodas that they’ve stole from the nearby convenience stores during the day. Even after the lights are off, they are up walking around, selling their goods. 

Sleeping in this homeless shelter, one must sleep with everything he has under his pillow or beside him or under his legs. Some homeless (the ones who have chosen to call this shelter a permanent home, steal money, clothes, phones, toiletries, and even phone chargers from other sleeping homeless. And once it’s gone, there’s no getting it back. It’s gone, no one saw anything, not even the closed circuit cameras. I have not been at this shelter since, but in my time there, I’ve lost a bag with clothes, resumes, and sketchpads, a phone, a phone charger (really bizarre), and a bible. 

I just ask that, if shelters employed people that were more responsible and enforced more strict rules and regulations on maintenance and management of the shelter, will doing so influence those homeless who are lost mentally to change their ways and do what’s for the better of themselves and others and their lives..? 


Thank you for viewing,

~ The Philadelphia Think Tank


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