There aren't enough beds for the more than 1 million visitors expected to flood Philadelphia when Pope Francis visits in September, particularly for those trying to be frugal. So Belinda Lewis Held had to be creative when it came to sheltering the more than 1,000 young people she's guiding that weekend: They'll be bunking down in museums, classrooms and churches.
"They're young and they don't mind the floors. They'll bring sleeping bags or yoga mats and pillows," said Lewis Held, director of group travel for APilgrimsJourney.com, a Pittsburgh company that organizes worldwide Catholic tours. "They're willing to rough it for Pope Francis."
With the papal visit imminent and the city's 11,500 hotel rooms filling up quickly, wannabe visitors are thinking outside the box (spring) when it comes to lodgings, particularly when they want to keep costs down.
Philadelphia officials may permit camping in some public parks, and untraditional offerings have appeared online. On Airbnb, a Delaware River houseboat was booked but a converted dance studio was still available late this week. Craigslist had a listing for an empty warehouse and multiple couch surfing options.
Lewis Held's company, which caters to large groups of any age, found more traditional hotels for older pilgrims but knew from experience that she could look elsewhere for younger visitors.
The goal is to keep costs down to make the trip possible for as many people as possible, Lewis Held said. Her company is working with four Roman Catholic dioceses in western Pennsylvania. The Erie Diocese's youth package, for example, costs $300 per person and includes bus transportation to the city, overnight accommodations, five meals and a commemorative papal flag and hat.
"Our mission is to bring kids to this event because I think it will be life-changing to see Pope Francis," Lewis Held said.
Brent Rovner, whose website popedelphia.com had about 150 rental listings with more being added every day, created a calculator that suggests rental prices to hosts. They are based on proximity to the Sept. 27 papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the number of bedrooms and parking spaces. The website says Rovner could rent his house for $10,000 a week. He has yet to find someone offering full price.
One current listing on popedelphia: space on the mats of a 10,000-square-foot mixed martial arts gym at $500 per person for the week. The facility has toilets but no showers.
"People can bring their sleeping bags or whatever and just sleep safely," owner Tuan Pham said.
On Airbnb, $45 a night gets three couches near Temple University.
"Well, technically it's two, but one is kind of L-shaped," said Conor O'Mara, who shares the house with four roommates.
"They're not nice couches at all, but people sleep there all the time," he said. "If people are desperate for some place to stay, they won't even care."
Sheets aren't included, but O'Mara could find a few pillows, if asked. Guests would get full access to the two bathrooms and kitchen, if desired.
"The bathrooms are how you'd expect them to be with five young guys living here," O'Mara said. "The kitchen has its ups and downs. Right now, it's down."
The pontiff will arrive in the U.S. from Cuba on Sept. 22, and will visit Washington and New York before closing out his trip in Philadelphia with the biggest public event, a Mass in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.