SELF serves to ease homelessness in Philly

Way Home is one of SELF Inc.’s housing programs.

The housing organization SELF Inc. served as the roadmap for Philadelphia’s homeless services system, said Mike Hinson, the organization’s president and chief operating officer. Dr. Sylvester Outley created SELF roughly three decades ago to bring drug and alcohol counseling services to Philadelphia’s shelters. Today, SELF is Philadelphia’s largest provider of emergency housing services. 

Before joining SELF in 2017, Hinson founded and ran the organization COLOURS, where among many responsibilities, he mentored Anthony McCullough, a young talented dancer who worked with the Rennie Harris Pure Movement Dance Company. But McCullough experienced homelessness, had to resort to couch surfing, and was eventually murdered in Center City. 

“When his life was taken, I was reminded of the many young LGBTQ+ people who experience homelessness, and that drove a mission in me to become an advocate and thought leader for the unhoused,” Hinson said in an email. From there, he became ensconced in initiatives to help alleviate homelessness in Philadelphia, including co-chairing the Blueprint to End Homelessness at the Urban Affairs Coalition, and helming the creation of Bethel House for LGBTQ youth while working for the City.   

SELF works in conjunction with the City of Philadelphia to provide permanent and temporary housing, as well as access to shelters, physical and mental health services, recovery-centric treatment and housing, employment-focused skills enhancement, and other support.

“We all firmly believe that housing is a basic human right, there’s just not enough of it,” said Sandra Romeo-Duckworth, director of housing for SELF. 

Two permanent housing programs operate out of SELF: the SELF + Cooperative, a partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Office of Homeless Services and the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Disability Services, which pairs up three individuals to share a single home; and Way Home Rapid Rehousing program, a collaboration with William Way LGBT Community Center, created specifically for LGBTQ folks experiencing homelessness. Individuals housed through either program must allot 30% of their income toward rent.

Through Way Home, individuals get placed in a house of their own and receive up to one year of rental assistance while they work to advance their education and gain employment skills. Through referrals from Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services, the team that runs Way Home has housed 30 people in its nearly two-year existence. 

“We also advocate really strongly for referrals to be able to come directly from the community, knowing that a lot of trans and nonbinary folks are not safe in City shelters and would not be accessing those,” said Cara Tratner, housing assistance manager for Way Home. 

LGBTQ individuals, especially people of color and youth, experience homelessness at disproportionately high rates compared to their cis/het and at times white counterparts. 

“LGBT and trans people of color spend the longest amount of time homeless [out of] any group in the homeless system by a lot,” ACT UP organizer Max Ray-Riek previously told PGN. 

According to a 2020 report by the Williams Institute, 17% of sexual minority adults said that they experienced homelessness in their lifetime, more than double that of the general population.  

Unlike SELF + Cooperative, the Way Home team works with private landlords, which can elongate the housing process. The ongoing housing crisis in Philadelphia adds an extra layer of complexity, Tratner said. 

The SELF + Cooperative provides 35 houses that are homes to families, parents with children and sometimes unrelated people who each have their own bedroom and share communal living space. The cooperative has housed up to 150 people since it began in September 2020. To receive housing through the cooperative, people just need to be experiencing homelessness and have a source of income. 

When placing three individuals in one house, SELF staffers undergo a process to match people with similar interests and lifestyles so they can live together harmoniously. “We’re not having people who like to stay up late at night and watch TV with somebody who is a really quiet person who wants a quiet house,” Romeo-Duckworth said.  

Once individuals and families are housed through either Way Home or SELF + Cooperative, they are often still working through trauma that may have been the root of their homelessness, or trauma that they experienced while being unhoused.   

“It’s definitely a process where people can begin [healing], which takes some time,” Romeo-Duckworth said. 

Tratner pointed out that entering housing can be challenging regardless of whether someone is learning to live with other people or feeling isolated living by themselves. 

“We all really believe in the housing first model, which is that people deserve their basic human right of housing and shelter no matter what,” Tratner said. “No matter what is going on with their lives, no matter their income, their background, their involvement with the criminal legal system or their mental health history. I have seen people be able to benefit from just having at least a safe place to live.”

The people who have been housed through Way Home and Self + Cooperative have expressed gratitude for having a warm, safe place to live, especially those with young children.  

“Just the fact that they’re a part of a community and able to feel as if they have a place over top of their head, but also a place where their children can grow up,” said Quibila Divine, chief program officer for SELF. 

Housing people during intermittent surges in COVID-19 has posed a challenge for the SELF housing team. Prior to the pandemic, SELF served 700 people a day, Hinson told PGN. But the organization has had to scale back the quantity of people it can help in order to ensure safety procedures are met.  

People seeking to enter SELF’s emergency or temporary housing programs have to be either vaccinated or tested before doing so, but leadership from the City’s Office of Homeless Services have not provided testing or vaccinations, Divine said. 

“It is impossible and not desirable to force people to submit to testing or vaccination to access either isolation or quarantine facilities or shelter facilities,” James Garrow, communications director for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said in an email. “Preconditions to admission are barriers to entry and an infringement on the rights of the unhoused in Philadelphia. Our testing provider reports that more than 99% of entrants, however, do agree to being tested for COVID-19.”

Staffers from SELF have been trying to communicate to City officials that they are unable to house people who have tested positive for COVID-19. “[The City] asked us to do that,” Divine said. At one of SELF’s housing sites, 39 people tested positive in one day, but City staff do not make available quarantine spaces for those people, Divine added.   

“When we call [Philadelphia’s health department], they don’t answer the phone,” she said. “It puts us in a bad situation, especially in the winter time when we have people we don’t want to put outside in the cold. If they’re showing symptoms, we have no other choice but to send them to the hospital.”

Hinson is leading a letter-writing campaign to inform the City and the mayor of what they need to do to keep SELF’s program participants and the organization’s majority Black and Brown team out of harm’s way. 

Garrow said that when the City’s Isolation and Quarantine facility was running out of capacity, they asked shelter operators and hospitals if they could provide safe housing until space at the facility became available.   

“Meanwhile, the Department of Public Health worked urgently to expand capacity in response to the surge and within the last month, capacity at the facility has increased to 131 rooms,” he said. “In addition, the Office of Homeless Services is working to open a COVID-19 Recovery Isolation Site with even more capacity.”