Last week, Philadelphia had it's first "code blue" of the season, when temperatures hover around or dip below 20 degrees, posing a serious threat to people sleeping outside. Outreach workers for the city and nonprofits are kicking into high gear to get people who are at risk out of the cold.
Temperatures may have crept back up, but some groups are worried about reduced capacity to serve the homeless in Philadelphia this year. The Office of Supporting Housing's "winter initiative plan," which outlines the city's winter resources and beds, has not been made public. Plans for several cafes, a type of drop-in resource center that can have emergency beds, are not finalized.
This causes two problems, said Misty Sparks of the Bethesda Project. "We don't know what winter resources are, so we can't tell folks what they are, so they don't know where to go," she said. Secondly, the rise in demand over the winter means that "there's a lot of people looking for places to go that just don't exist."
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In recent years, the city government and some nonprofit organizations have focused on permanent housing as a solution to chronic homelessness, redirecting resources from stop-gaps such as the winter shelters to longer term facilities.
But that plan doesn't necessarily help the people who seek shelter during the winter. The people likely to go to a cafe bed on a frigid winter night, said Sparks, are "folks who've been on the streets long term and suffer lots of compounding issues, mental health issues ... [as well as] the population that is refused services by the shelter system."
For this winter, the deputy director of the Philadelphia Office of Supportive Housing said the office will be able to provide beds for about the same number of people as last winter, a number she puts at between 300 and 400. "We're going to be starting some expanding capacity for men on Dec. 1," said Leticia Egea-Hinton. That capacity? An additional 66 beds for single men.
Other services, including a drop-in cafe at the Broad Street Ministry, will be announced over the next few weeks, she said. That one, however, won't start until "more than likely maybe mid-December" because the city is still in negotiations with the service provider.
Asked about the late start this year, Egea-Hinton said, "I think the difference with last winter is that it got colder a lot sooner."
Still, that lack of transparency is leaving some groups confused about what will happen this winter. The Bethesda Project did not receive a contract through OSH's winter initiative plan this year, although it had been running the cafe at the Broad Street Ministry since 2006.
That drastically changes what they are able to offer, said Sparks.
"We're concerned with the folks we've served throughout the years and that we will not be running it this year," she said.
Project HOME, another nonprofit that works in the area of supportive housing, typically provides additional services during the winter. Laura Weinbaum, the Project HOME's vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives, said the lack of information is not the same thing as diminished capacity.
"If you showed up at a shelter tonight with 10 people, would you be turned away? It seems like the answer is 'no'," she said, based on the experiences of her outreach team during last week's cold snap.
To connect with outreach resources, call Project HOME's homeless outreach hotline at (215) 232-1984.
At last year's point in time count, an annual census of people sleeping on the streets, 388 Philadelphians were without shelter.