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As Philadelphia temperatures dip, homeless outreach workers distribute socks, smiles and resources

Dolores Liggins and Maryann Styles conducting homeless outreach. December 3, 2018 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongMethod
At 10:41 a.m. on Thursday morning, Dolores Liggins approached a woman standing in front of a Dunkin Donuts in South Philadelphia. She was wearing a blanket around her shoulders, a skirt and no socks in 33-degree weather.

“How are you?” Liggins asked. “Where are your socks? Want me to grab you some?”

The woman walked away, even as Liggins asked if she could buy her a cup of coffee and offered her the other warm clothes stowed in her trunk.

It was all Liggins could do, she said. She had tried to make the woman engage with a warm tone and a smile — as she does for all of her clients as a member of one of the city’s homeless outreach teams.

As the weather gets colder, these outreach teams and the Office of Homeless Services (OHS) are preparing for increased intake and Code Blues.

Behind the scenes

In 2017, the city called 42 Code Blues, a citywide designation indicating that the National Weather Service has predicted excessive cold. People experiencing homelessness are encouraged to get inside during a Code Blue, and the public is (always) encouraged to call the homeless outreach line at 215-232-1984 if they see anyone in need.

This season, one was called as early as Nov. 15.

And although this type of weather is dangerous for anyone on the streets, OHS Deputy Director Roberta Cancellier said it’s an opportunity to make progress with stubborn clients.

“When people are hungry and chilly or have a medical condition that’s aggravated by being outdoors and being in the cold, they may be receptive to an offer to come in, especially if that outreach worker has built that relationship,” Cancellier said.

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If someone is in danger and continually denies services, Liggins said a Code Blue may also lead to a 302 — a petition by the worker for the individual to be involuntarily committed to a space indoors.

During Code Blues, extra homeless outreach teams will be dispatched, and OHS will make an extra 80 shelter beds available, per the office’s website.

OHS begins planning for the colder season that lasts from early December to March in the late summer, Cancellier said.

The city office adds between 200 to 300 spaces for the whole season through partnerships with nonprofits and “cafés,” which aren’t full-fledged shelters, but warm indoor spaces that offer basic amenities. Church-based spaces — such as Trinity Memorial Church on 22nd and Spruce streets — are also instrumental because they are usually less crowded and have a low barrier for entry, Cancellier said.

She added that the efforts of shelters and outreach workers are disrupted by the same realities of harsh weather that everyone faces. Frozen pipes, leaks or worsened driving conditions are all potential problems.

Homeless outreach and services in Philadelphia are a 24/7 effort that happens 365 days a year, but the winter heighten the stakes for the on-the-ground teams.

“It’s cold, it’s uncomfortable,” Cancellier said. “We worry about people and teams that are out there. The staff that work with people are just incredibly creative and flexible and empathetic and really helping people where they are and help them move to a better place.”

On the ground

As a duo in homeless outreach, Liggins and Maryann Styles have worked a combined 21 years on Philadelphia’s streets. Together, the partners have learned cigarettes and coffee are almost foolproof engagement tools.

Other supplies have become necessary on their daily routes, such as Narcan, a nasal spray that reverses drug overdoses. It’s a symptom of the worsening drug and homelessness crisis in the city they say they’ve witnessed.

The annual headcount of how many homeless people are in Philadelphia in March 2018 jumped by 10 percent from the year prior. In March 2017, it was reported that the rate had gone up by 32 percent from 2016. More than 1,200 people died of an unintentional drug overdose in 2017, which is a 34 percent increase from 2016. In 2003, that number sat at 311.

Bearing all that in mind, the duo starts their shift at 6 a.m., five days a week. Liggins and Styles work under the umbrella of the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services homeless outreach program.

Each morning, the two sweep their zone, which encompasses South Philadelphia, Callowhill and portions of Market Street. That’s until they get a call from the outreach coordinating center at Project HOME on Fairmount Avenue. An employee will tell them where to go and what type of activity to expect when they get there.

A call just like that is what led them to the Dunkin Donuts on Thursday morning. They hadn’t interacted with this woman before, but as they drove from 10th and Market streets toward City Hall, Liggins and Styles could name several people on the street by first name.

One man asking for change was supposed to be in housing and taking Suboxone, a medication used for opioid dependence.

“We’ll check on him soon,” Styles said to Liggins.

When the weather turns cold and Code Blues are called, the duo keeps these people in mind as potential 302s. It’s a strategic decision for outreach workers, Liggins said. They have to weigh the danger of the situation with possibly breaking the trust that they’ve built with that person.

But Liggins noted that “our job is not to make friends. Our job is to make sure people are safe, off the streets and out of harm’s way and make sure that we don’t have another person die out here.”

According to a 2017 OHS report, 269 people who died between 2011 and 2015 were experiencing homelessness. Homeless outreach teams in the city had engaged with 75 percent of these individuals in the past.

Hearing a client has died is never easy to grapple with, said Liggins, who attends the annual Homeless Memorial Day event organized by Project HOME. She and Styles have even been called to identify a John or Jane Doe if they’re believed to be homeless.

So, when they get response calls during shifts, they do everything they can to prevent those morose ones. It begins with the basics and simply “treating them like a fellow human,” Styles said.

Liggins and Styles both have personal ties to their work. Liggins was homeless herself at one point, and Styles has family members who live on the streets. But they wish everyone, regardless of their background or personal understanding of the issue, would show a little more compassion.

“These people are homeless for a reason, and everyone has their shortcomings,” Styles said. “I wish people would keep that in mind. Stop and talk to them, be compassionate. You’ll be surprised by what you learn.”


Office of Homeless Services

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