Shelter for the weary

I’m frequently passing through Suburban Station in Center City, Philadelphia on my way in or out of the city. Suburban Station hasn’t been meaningfully renovated since (I think) about 2000 or so, and it shows.

SEPTA has introduced digital signage for train arrivals/departures, which has been nice. Recently, brighter lighting has helped the underground station feel less dismal, but it’s also highlighted how grimy the place tends to be. Sometime soon there will be turnstiles installed for the new SEPTA Key program, which will physically restrict a portion of the station to travelers. But the atmosphere, generally, is depressing and sometimes oppressive. Both in the heat of summer and the chill of winter, homeless persons flood a place that’s designed to be a public square—a place for all people. The result is that the homeless get neither the aid nor shelter they need, nor do travelers and visitors get the experience of a genuinely public space. That may change:

Though it has the highest poverty rate among big American cities, Philadelphia has one of the lowest homelessness rates, said Liz Hersh, director of the office of homeless services. Nevertheless, the number of people on the street is growing, she said, in large part because of the opioid epidemic. Along with the people without any shelter, Philadelphia has about 5,700 who reside in shelters or temporary housing.

“Three-fourths have some kind of substance abuse disorder or mental health problems and very often both,” Hersh said. “It’s a national crisis, and the wave has not yet crested.” …

Transit stations are obvious havens for homeless people. They’re sheltered, safe, and have amenities like bathrooms. The increase in the city’s homeless population has, in turn, led to more homeless people in places like Suburban Station during bad weather — as many as 350 in one day, according to a count last winter. It’s unusual, though, for a transportation authority to take so active a role in providing an alternative for a city’s homeless.

“SEPTA is pretty unique in major city transit authorities sort of embracing and stepping up to the challenge of homeless systems,” said Laura Weinbaum, a vice president at Project HOME.

Officials aren’t concerned the service center will attract more homeless people to Suburban Station, Knueppel said; they’re there already. …

When finished, the new Hub of Hope, a name borrowed from a much smaller seasonal service center also located in Suburban Station, will provide medical and psychiatric attention, legal services, showers, and laundry. It is expected to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week, with some weekend hours, year-round. Meal services will be available Friday through Sunday. If nothing else, it will be a comfortable place for people to sit and feel safe. It will be staffed largely by Project HOME workers and volunteers.

As important, though, is to create an environment where people can stop worrying about the immediate demands of survival, organizers said. That may make them open to more comprehensive services to address the deeper causes of their homelessness.

“Many times, these are folks who have been extremely vulnerable over a long period of time,” Weinbaum said. “If they come in, and we can nurture that feeling of trust, the hope is they will be open to other possibilities.”