On a Wednesday afternoon in December shortly before 3 p.m., about 20 people are assembled on the steps of what used to be the Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church on South Broad Street. Most of them don’t know one another. Some of them are people who are homeless and living on the street. Others are people who aren’t technically homeless, if homelessness is taken to mean merely the absence of a roof, any roof, over one’s head. But all of them have one thing in common: Their mailing address is 315 S. Broad St.
Without the address, “it’s impossible” to have a functional life, said Toure, a 29-year-old man with a 76ers flat-brim cap who shared only his first name. He said he stays in the city’s shelters, but always picks his mail up — correspondence from his bank, information about jobs, Supplemental Security Income benefits — at 315 S. Broad St.
At any point in time in Philadelphia, between 2,600 and 3,000 people who are homeless, living in a shelter, or living in some other form of transitional, temporary housing are collecting their mail at Broad Street Ministry.
Filling a need
For 10 years, BSM has occupied the former site of Chambers-Wylie, just south of the intersection of Broad and Spruce streets and just across the street from the famed Kimmel Center. Free meals are served daily, Monday through Friday. On Sundays, the nonprofit is a place where Philadelphians who normally don’t mingle will find themselves elbow to elbow. As its website reads, BSM is where “a member of a prestigious private club worships alongside a homeless person.”
But it’s also a makeshift postal service for people without an address to call their own. As those who work at BSM say, a mailing address is the gateway for homeless Philadelphians to access benefits, communicate with hospitals and banks, and even obtain something as simple as a government-issued identification card.
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“Everything grinds to a halt without that address,” said Edd Conboy, BSM’s director of social services.
Lending out its physical address as the mailing address of thousands seems like a no-brainer for BSM. But it wasn’t BSM’s idea, in the beginning. About eight years ago, one of the guests who would come in every week for a meal had his mail delivered there. The receptionist held it and gave it to him.
Over time the mail service grew, from a stack of letters held in a plastic bin for about 30 people, to a filing cabinet for about 300 people, to where it is today: Several filing cabinets stuffed with manila folders containing the mail for about 3,000 people, according to Brittany Mellinger, guest services manager at BSM and one of the coordinators of the mail service.
“Having this place that people can come back to as kind of a home base and know that their benefits won’t get interrupted, that their mail is completely safe, that their neighbors aren’t going to steal it — it’s really a reassurance to people,” Mellinger said.
Fighting a damaged system
“In many places you can’t get a mailing address without ID — and you can’t get ID without a mailing address,” Conboy said.
What Conboy outlines in a pithy way is the essential conundrum for people living on the street or in temporary housing. With no way to receive mail, or no secure location for their mail to be sent, they often miss out on what most people take for granted, which is that tiny ID card that lets our banks, jobs, and our city government know we are who we say we are.
For homeless Philadelphians, not having a mailing address makes the problems they’re working through even more acute.
“Without a mailing address, you’re really locked out of public benefits,” said Michael McKee, a case manager at BSM. “There’s no way to apply for a job, no way to receive mail.”
Depending on the day, mail is available for morning or afternoon pickup. People with ID arrive, show it to one of the BSM staffers or volunteers pulling mail, and then make their pickup. But, in the event that someone doesn’t have an ID already, BSM has also tied mail to people’s names and birthdays: A unit number — think of it like a P.O. box — that’s a combination of a person’s birth month and date corresponds to a guest coming in for their mail. That’s how mail is sorted and organized.
On the Wednesday this Generocity reporter arrived at BSM, about 100 people cycled through between 3 and 5:30 p.m. At any one time, about 50 people hung around BSM’s first floor — an old-school auditorium with a chilly, tiled checkered floor — sitting at tables chatting with each other and sorting through their envelopes. Some were waiting for 4 p.m. meal service to begin.
Others were looking to flag down McKee for a chat, and it’s in those moments that the underlying value of BSM’s mail service can be glimpsed: Volunteers and BSM staff provide guidance for people struggling with bills or signing up for welfare benefits, and being able to do that right when they’re reading through their mail is ideal.
“The mail service is an engine for sustained contact, which gives us more opportunity to build a relationship,” McKee said. “Whatever level of stability they have in their lives, this is one of the pillars of it. And that means we’re able to stay in conversation with them.”
Even if that means people are just popping in quickly. Toure didn’t hang around long. He lingered just enough for a reporter to ask him a few questions.
“I appreciate having a paper trail,” said Toure about BSM’s mail service. “It’s godly how they do it.”-30-
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