Families hope to raise awareness about homelessness
This article was updated on Sept. 21
What started as the urgent situation of six homeless families with no place to go has turned into an active protest to raise awareness about this social issue in time for the Papal visit.
Last week the community group Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign announced a total of six families who have been evicted and had applied for emergency shelter have set up a tent city at the intersection of American and Cumberland Streets, because of the lack of beds at local shelters and lack of housing vouchers for emergency housing.
“We knew we had to do something because we couldn’t get them into the Office of Emergency services,” Cheri Honkala, founder of the group, said last Wednesday. “I called a bunch of people from the faith community but they said they had no place.”
She added that up to that moment she believed she was starting to get some response by challenging the faith community but hadn’t gotten any “concrete solutions.”
Rev. Adan Mairena, from West Kensington Ministry, said he is disappointed and concerned by the situation. “At least she hasn’t taken the initiative to reach out to me. I am disappointed to hear when people say the church is not helping,” Mairena said.
Honkala had said she reached out to Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez at a community meeting at West Kensington in August. The topic at the meeting was a recent shooting on Howard Street, other civic leaders from Norris Square were also there and no specific request made at that time.
Rev. Mairena clarified via email that he had organized that meeting at his church, not to talk about a shooting incident, but with the purpose to “strengthen the relationship between our organizations. Leaders of organizations that surround Norris Square Park were present and we were clear on the purpose of our meeting.”
Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez reiterated she was never directly approached to help the families but said she was working to set up a meeting between PHA members and the families to find the proper aid for them.
“I understand that part of their mission is to provide aid and services for these families. At no time did Honkala ask me directly for my help for any of them,” Quiñones said. “My job as a council member is to reach out to the proper people to provide the services needed which is what I intend to do today.”
Last Thursday Quiñones-Sánchez visited the location, as the commotion and concerns for the family's situation intensified so did the number of community members donating food, clothes and even some money.
The President and CEO of Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), Kelvin A. Jeremiah, arrived at the site that afternoon. “We are here because we want to work with the families and the organizers to provide some assistance, and to explain to them what those services are and to encourage them to take us up on that offer,” Jeremiah said.
Accompanying Jeremiah was Marie Nahikian, Director of the Office of Supporting Housing. She reiterated that they have many more people who have needs than resources, but that they were there to put the available services on the table.
“My staff is here to meet all of this families and figure out who needs what, how many children are here. Then we would continue to work with the families as soon as we assess people and get them into emergency housing,” Nahikian said.
Nahikian said her office was able to find some extra space to provide for the families although she preferred not to specify the location because of privacy issues. “We are renting it from someone else because it was being set up for another purpose, but we were able to grab it for the moment.”
“The important point is that there are resources that are available right now to house them… if they want to,” Jeremiah added.
However, last Thursday none of the families took the city's offer for shelter, instead Honkala announced her group intends to start a new “underground railroad” (network of pathways to end homelessness) and start moving the families into abandoned PHA homes.
When journalist Chris O’Connell from Fox 29 asked Honkala “you say you don’t want anybody to sleep on the street, but tonight they are going to sleep on the street when they had an opportunity to be in a shelter. Why are you encouraging these people not to take a shelter tonight?”
Honkala didn’t answer the question directly and simply said “that sounds like such a Fox29 question.”
Protesters assured they want homes and not shelters. According to Honkala's Facebook page, the families were able to spend the weekend at the houses of individuals that offered their support.
“We haven’t worked things out. What we did is try to offer what is available in terms of an emergency and that is not long term solution. So they are right that they need a long term solution to it and they made a choice that they do not want to take the emergency services at this point,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.
The Councilwoman added that the issue is a broader policy. “There are 300 families in shelter, the need is real. They want to do things in a different way to get PHA to respond quicker.”
“To not sleep for three days … you sleep with one eye open when you’ve got police officers in white shirts showing up every hour on the hour and people calling me from the Department of Human Services Child Protection,” Honkala said. “The city hasn’t had any affordable housing or shelter in years. It is a real crisis in the Latino community, as Puerto Rico has been taken over by a bunch of white millionaires, and this has been the largest migration since the 1950s. The poverty rate for Latinos have even fallen lower than African Americans.”
Rep. Leslie Acosta, has also showed her support for the families. “You see the outcry of the neighbors. But we have good support here, the people are coming together and it shows that even though this is a poor community, this is community that has resilience, this is a community that comes together in time of need and crisis,” Acosta said.
“That is the most amazing thing, we have people that are willing to give back to those less fortunate. These are battles we had 30 years ago and we still have those battles today. It is shameful that we have to do this just to get attention and to get the people the resources that they need,” Acosta said. “Philadelphia has a lot of resources the problem is, they give the resources to the people they want to give them to, it is selective and that shouldn’t be the case.”
Honkala, who has been helping homeless families for the last 20 years, last week said she took $200 from own rent money and started gathering supplies. She then got a U-Haul truck and coordinated getting people’s belongings.
“I knew this was going to happen because these families came to us about a month ago. Everybody has a different circumstance but everybody has been evicted,” Honkala said.
As a former homeless person herself, Honkala said for years the city has experienced what she calls the “underground railroad” where volunteers use their own homes to help out because of the lack of resources for the homeless.
“When it comes to priorities a lot of people say ’there is no money for this,’” said Galen Tyler, also a former homeless person and current member of Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. “There are different families and situations where people don’t have anybody to help them out during a hard time. And it should be us — as neighbors, community people, leaders and relatives and city agencies and city officials — it should be a priority to make sure to help those people who can’t help themselves,” Tyler added.
“There are five or six different families helping each other, trying to find support because nobody else is helping them. A lot of my friends on social media are getting together to see how we can help out these people,”said Jessica Perdomo, a Feltonville resident who visited the site last week to make a donation.