Volunteers fan the city to find and tabulate young Philadelphians living homeless
More than 100 volunteers gathered under giant stained-glass windows at Broad Street Ministry last Thursday to count the number of young adults experiencing homelessness on the streets of Philadelphia.
Aisha Childs, 48, a social worker from Germantown, was assigned a part of Center City with Ezekiel, 20, from West Philadelphia, a beauty student who knows first-hand what it’s like to live without a home. Ezekiel’s last name is being withheld for personal security reasons.
The two strangers shook hands and then took to the streets to help compile a census to be used to better serve the homeless. It was Ezekiel’s first census of youth and the tenth of Childs.
“It’s a reward for me,” said Childs, whose mission is to serve women, children and families at Public Health Management Corp. to help. “I’m always trying to help someone in need.”
Last week, volunteers swarmed across the United States to count homeless people for the point-in-time count (PIT), a requirement of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is operated in Philadelphia by the Office of Homeless Services.
On Thursday, the separate Youth PIT Count for young adults ages 18 to 24 (not federally mandated) was conducted in Philadelphia, also under OHS, under the direction of the Valley Youth House.
The figures will not be available until summer.
The city says homelessness in Philadelphia has decreased. In 2018, the total number of people living in shelters was 4,705, while the unprotected population was 1,083. Among young adults, 1,822 were sheltered and 96 without shelter.
Last year, according to city figures, the total number of people protected was 3,701; 788 homeless people. The numbers among young adults: 1,077 homeless, 73 homeless.
However, many experts dispute the findings, with some estimating that the population of Philadelphia’s streets is closer to 1,200.
“The unprotected population is vastly under-represented in this very imperfect PIT response,” said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center.
For example, Tars said volunteer counters are told to avoid parks, abandoned buildings and alleyways for their own safety.
“But those are the places where the homeless are most likely to be,” Tars said.
An OHS spokesman acknowledged that the PIT count serves only as a “snapshot in time… not a complete picture of homelessness.”
Young adults are counted separately because they don’t sleep outdoors at night, said Sister Mary Scullion, co-founder and executive director of Project HOME, the nationally known non-profit dedicated to the fight against homelessness in Philadelphia.
“Homeless youth are almost invisible,” she said. They most likely stayed over at friends’ house, she added.
That describes Ezekiel’s situation.
“I got kicked out of my parents’ house for being gay,” Ezekiel said as he walked north on Broad Street with Childs. “I’m transgender and non-binary.” Ezekiel couch-surfed for a year after spending a brief stint on the streets.
“Being homeless makes you feel exhausted, like you’ll never get back on your feet,” Ezekiel said. “People you thought care about you don’t. It’s a heavy burden.”
But with the help of friends and the Valley Youth House, Ezekiel became a student at a beauty school and now lives in an apartment.
Ezekiel sees the youth census as a way of giving back.
“Being homeless made me open my heart,” Ezekiel said. “I don’t want people to fight like I do.”
Passing through Center City, Ezekiel and Childs descended to the Broad Street Line station at 15th and Locust Streets.
Six people appear to be living homeless in a wide, unused corridor under bright neon lights.
Childs took charge.
Childs spoke softly, conferring privately with a young woman named Kiki, who was wrapped in a blue blanket. Childs took city-provided survey questions, but also took advantage of this brief moment of contact to comfort the nervous woman, then offered her a $5 gift certificate to Wawa.
Childs and Ezekiel tried unsuccessfully to speak to another woman. “Your brain is a bit messed up,” Childs said. “She said something about being sick of being harassed by homeless men.”
As trains rumbled nearby, the two walked on to JR, a young man who said he had to get high before he could speak. After that he was nervous and taciturn, saying only, “I’m staying away from other people down here for my health.”
With no one else willing to talk, Childs and Ezekiel climbed the stairs back onto South Broad Street.
The couple walked around City Hall and LOVE Park for three hours and then into the Suburban Station. They did not encounter any young people affected by homelessness.
“This part of town is absolutely gentrified,” Childs complained. “New construction displaces the needy masses. It’s a bit too fancy down here.”
Childs confessed that after 15 years at her job, she tells herself that each new count is her last.
“But for some reason I’m sticking with it,” she said. “Out of 50 people I look after, five to ten come back to me after they’ve found a job and a place to live and say, ‘If it hadn’t been for you, Miss Aisha. …’
“I live for these thank yous, for these changed lives.”
When it got dark, she and Ezekiel went back to Broad Street Ministry.
“I’m sad,” Childs said. “We haven’t encountered the youngsters that I know are out here.
“I wish we could have found more people to talk to. Count more people. more to help.”