This is the time of year when a lot of parents are working their way through the list of typical back-to-school purchases, such as fall clothes, books, and school supplies.
For the families sponsored by SafeHome Philadelphia, on whose board of directors I sit (the website is out of date), the back-to-school priority list reads a little differently:
1) Get out of unsafe housing, off the streets, and find a place to call home
Without a place to call home it's virtually impossible for parents to even consider school for their kids. SafeHome Philadelphia is a non-profit, privately funded organization dedicated to ending homelessness by working with landlords in local communities to identify safe, clean environments for families and their children. We get families off the street, into a home of their own.
It's called the Housing First philosophy, and it is a radical attempt to end homelessness. Rather than put families in a shelter system and wait for them to take care of the issues that led them there, we believe in giving people housing first, and then connecting them to the mainstream and neighborhood services they need to maintain permanent housing. This community-based approach helps prevent people from entering the homeless service system, and helps those already homeless to rapidly exit the cycle of temporary solutions. Give people the stability and dignity that permanent housing affords, rather than use the more expensive shelter system as a bandaid. (We have a 90%+ success rate that proves it works.)
2) Get support to re-establish my family
Coming off the street, working families typically do not have the necessary first and last month rent, security deposit, etc., let alone credit to qualify for basic utilities. SafeHome Philadelphia makes available a general "housing success" fund, which helps with up-front, move-in expenses. Our term family advocates help families work through legal and financial challenges to setting up and making their home permanent.
3) Find basic household items to cook with, bathe with, eat from, etc.
SafeHome families typically lack things that most people take for granted. Children need chairs to sit on and tables to put their books on - at the minimum. Then consider the things required for basic cooking, eating, sleeping in a bed (often as opposed to the bare floor or a cast-off couch). As part of the "housing success" fund and donations, SafeHome helps families with the basic household goods to make their home ... home.
The good news: we've found the solution, and we've housed and stabilized 41 families, including 102 children, in less than 2 years.
We can demonstrate that SafeHome can end homelessness in ways other programs can't. That we can re-connect families with society by giving them a home first. A place of their own from which to build pride, regain hope, become self-sufficient... and to do homework.
I met one of our families at a rally we held on Wednesday in Philadelphia, Twin sisters in a shelter with their mother and siblings. Their grades plummeted, and one was held back. Conditions in the shelter were so unbearable that their mother rented a house she couldn't afford; they were forced to live without furniture, and still remained on the brink of homelessness. Desperate, they found SafeHome Philadelphia on a library computer.
Today, the family's income is stable and their house is furnished --including a computer for homework! Now, when the twins get home from school, homework comes first - and they're getting A's & B's on their report cards.
And it's cheap: we are able to house and stabilize a family for a one-time cost of only $4,000.
Sounds like a lot? It costs the City of Philadelphia $35,000 annually in taxpayer dollars to put a family in a shelter. A shelter is not a home. At the end of that year, there still is no permanence, no option, no future. We spend half of $4,000 (raised privately, without governmental red tape or restrictions) on up-front rent and security deposits, and the other half on support staff, including the family advocate. Our dollars flow straight to the solution.
But we absolutely need your support now.
Basically, SafeHome was our gamble. We decided that the best way to turn around homelessness in Philadelphia was to use the reserves we had to support as many families as possible, to demonstrate that a "housing first" philosophy worked, and then use those results to generate the support for the funds needed to sustain and expand the program. That's where we are right now -- we are running out of funds for new families, and we have more calling every day.
We are running out of time, and running out of money. Can you help us find more places for more kids to do their homework? Please click on the "make a donation" link and help us out.
What's important here is to realize that homelessness is not a permanent, intractable condition. We can do something about it.