Nov. 19, 2018 10:25 am

This is what family homelessness looks like in Philadelphia — and how to solve it

Jason Miller, CEO of Families Forward Philadelphia, reflects on his first year at the helm of one of the only inclusive family shelters in the city and explains "invisible homelessness."

Families Forward program participants.

(Photo by Juliet Shen)

This is a guest post by Families Forward CEO Jason Miller.
I often say that when you are struggling with poverty you are not simply without money, but you lack options in most parts of your life.

The barriers of deep poverty are real and one single life event can knock you off your path. I observe families struggle with this every day in the fight to obtain permanent housing. I’ve been there as they experienced daily victories with employment, relationships, parenting, education and housing — but also face daily barriers to advancement. But this struggle is invisible to most of us in the larger Philadelphia community.

Over the past year I have had the honor and privilege of being the CEO at Families Forward Philadelphia. As one of the only inclusive family shelters in the city, we house 65 families at a time at our West Philadelphia shelter and operate 70 units of supportive housing within our continuum of care.

We welcome father-lead households, LGBTQ families, and uniquely, we house boys over the age of 13. In many shelters, older boys are forced to find other housing outside of the shelter, hence being separated from their immediate family.

Leading Families Forward has been the biggest challenge in my career to date. It is difficult to not personally internalize the enormous barrier that many families face in their search for housing stability. This year has demonstrated to me the importance of resilience, while at the same time building optimism in the face of a very difficult issue. Here’s what I want people to know about family homelessness.

What do we mean by “invisible homelessness”?

In Philadelphia, family homelessness (describing those who lack permanent housing) is often hidden from our daily experience. Rarely do you see a family with children on the street. This is good thing, and a success for our housing continuum of care, in the sense that families are able to find emergency housing when they need it and do not turn to living on the street.

But my experience so far is that the adage “out of sight out of mind” holds true with families in housing crisis. Our city’s collective conscience seems to forget about families when engaging in public debate about housing policy. This is most likely because we simply do not see our most vulnerable families and the poverty they face.  When you scratch the surface a little, you will see many families facing housing instability. We call this invisible homelessness.

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(Courtesy photo)

Compared to my previous experience providing housing services to single individuals, I’ve found that the barriers families face are complex. For example, if you have an autistic child and are living in a shelter, the effort needed to obtain permanent housing, get your child the services they need and still think about your own employment, etc. is a very tall task.

I am reminded every day that just because one housing program or intervention works with singles, it may not work with a family.

We see this now with the ever-increasing role of rapid rehousing programs (RRH) in Philadelphia. RRH is a housing model that moves families from shelter to a rental home with a one-year subsidy and social service supports. After one year, the family either stays in the home or is ready to transition to a permanent address. The goal is to move families as quickly as possible from shelter to housing.

Shelter stay should ideally be as short as possible, but remains a necessary option for families who need that extra support of social services in order to get to financial stability and independence. The current average stay at the our shelter is six months.

While RRH has proven to work well with singles and anyone dealing with short-term housing crisis, for families struggling with long-term housing instability, it remains to be seen if it will be as effective.

Emergency shelters, the pathway to permanent housing

Currently, an emergency shelter is the gateway to the housing system — and word on the street says you can find permanent housing via the shelter. Families often make a conscious economic decision to turn to an emergency shelter in order to gain access to permanent housing. Most of the time, shelters are meant for housing emergencies, but it is also how we, as a city, manage access to housing resources.

While the reality of this system is that housing is not always guaranteed, entering a shelter does remain one of the quicker paths to housing for some families. Put more simply, when you are staring at 10- to 12-year wait list for a public housing subsidy versus one year of living at a shelter, most people would choose a shelter.

The city’s system is slowing changing to coordinated entry, which is based on each family’s unique needs and has the potential to skip straight to permanent housing. Still, shelter remains a very important option for those who do need extra time and services.

A step out of “deep poverty”

(Courtesy photo)

At Families Forward, most of the participant families face a poverty most of us will never have to live with. While most people in our city can easily quote that 25.7 percent of Philadelphia population is below the poverty line, it is remarkable to also note that 12 percent live on $12,000 or less annually. This is known as deep poverty.

Our city still ranks number one of the 10 biggest cities in the nation for deep poverty. The result of this is one unpaid utility bill, a missed medical bill, an unexpected emergency room visit, a missed day of work due to child being ill, could be the event that leads to a emergency shelter stay. This housing instability is a very real factor faced by those poorest residents in Philadelphia on a daily basis.

We already know how to solve homelessness and the affordable housing crisis.

The solution starts and ends with housing being treated as a basic right.

The Housing First movement is a step in this direction. The National Alliance to End Homelessness defines housing first as an approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing, “guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues.”

Using the urgency of Housing First and collaboration across sectors, we can build the appropriate amount of affordable and permanent housing. Along with robust social services, we can eliminate the need for emergency housing.

What we can do now to create change in Philadelphia

  1. Demand the creation of more affordable housing from our politicians, housing developers and city planners of Philadelphia. As our city experiences a housing and development boom, we must ask ourselves who this housing is being created for and how we can create space for low-income and mixed-income housing.
  2. Listen to the ideas and solutions from those that lack permanent housing and are currently in emergency shelter or on the street. They know what the solutions are.
  3. Support organizations that are working everyday to make family homelessness and poverty visible and are acting to solve it one family at a time. Volunteer, give your time and demand solutions from our city and community.

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