Philadelphia boasts a wealth of diversity, historical significance and a strong sense of community. It is coined, after all, the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. However, it also holds the unfortunate distinction of being the poorest major city in America. The city has faced significant challenges in effectively addressing a housing crisis that has caused distress for thousands of its residents, including myself: I have endured ongoing housing instability for more than half my lifetime.
My journey into the world of housing assistance began at 19, prompted by my grandmother’s insistence that I visit the local Philadelphia Housing Authority’s (PHA) office and submit a housing application. My grandmother had benefited from PHA’s housing program, living in one of their projects with her husband and six children for over 30 years. Eventually, she seized an opportunity through Mayor Streets’ homeownership program, becoming a homeowner for the first time.
Following her advice, I filled out the application and continued to lead a nomadic existence, moving from place to place, couch to couch, and sometimes even resorting to public benches. At the same time, I anxiously awaited a call from PHA that never seemed to arrive. But I would not have gotten a ‘call’ from PHA anyway. PHA adopted a communication practice with its waitlist applicants that solely relies on mail-out letters to inform applicants of available homes, which seems puzzling when considering that unhoused individuals often lack a stable mailing address to receive such letters in the first place.
It is all too common to hear heartbreaking stories of people missing out on housing opportunities after languishing on PHA’s extensive waitlist for years. This unfortunate turn of events could occur due to their chosen mailing address failing to notify them of the housing letter, the letter getting lost in transit, a failure to update their address in PHA’s database, or some other mishap. The exclusive use of letters for housing notifications is a deliberate administrative strategy to reduce the number of individuals on the ever-expanding waitlist. This list grows exponentially with each passing year.
These stories are not unsubstantiated urban myths but the unfortunate realities of thousands of voiceless, faceless, unhoused Philadelphians who have fallen through the margins due to a perpetually broken housing system. Philadelphia’s ineffective housing system is evidenced by PHA’s housing waitlists that open or close depending on what factors the agency deems an acceptable wait time. Yet, it remains to be seen what metrics are considered in making such a determination.
The lack of transparency from the housing organization adds to the dread and confusion countless community members have felt toward PHA and its culturally insensitive practices for generations. For example, consider Abbottsford Homes, a housing project managed by the PHA in Upper North Philadelphia, which has an average waiting period of 13 years. Many other PHA waitlist locations across the city share this extensive wait time. Currently, I’m registered on the waiting lists of twelve PHA-operated housing sites, each with an average waiting period of 12 years. Given that I’ve been on several of these lists since 2005, I significantly exceed the estimated wait times provided by the PHA. Philadelphia County should consider this happenstance grossly unacceptable in eliminating housing instability and preventing homelessness.
The sole alternative to PHA’s dubious waitlist option is to endure several months in one of Philadelphia’s infamously overpopulated and unsafe homeless shelters in hopes of expediting the acquisition of a prized PHA housing ticket. Based on the FY 2022 Data Snapshot from the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services, it is revealed that 18% of the homeless population in the city is living without shelter in unsuitable conditions. This unsheltered population has fluctuated between 16% and 18% since 2017. When one juxtaposes the 4,938 beds available in emergency shelters, safe havens and transitional housing within the city with the 4,489 individuals experiencing homelessness on any particular night, it is clear that the demand for housing is not outpacing the supply of it.
So, what factors lead numerous homeless individuals to opt for street living instead of city sheltering options? Perhaps the diverse intersections and risk levels embedded within a person’s identity shape this choice. Due to the ongoing administrative injustices embedded in our systems, particularly in housing, individuals identifying as LGBTQIA+ frequently find themselves in vulnerable positions within these shelter settings. LGBTQIA+ people are twice as likely to experience homelessness. Trans-identified individuals are often placed in these facilities based on their assigned sex at birth rather than their true gender identity, rendering them susceptible to harassment, mistreatment and violence from other residents and staff. Reports indicate that transgender individuals encounter homelessness more often and tend to be notably younger on average compared to individuals of different gender identities.
Moreover, those unhoused individuals suffering from mental health issues are subject to these environments, posing extreme risk of harm. It’s estimated that a significant 20–25% of the homeless population in the United States contends with severe mental health challenges, a significantly higher proportion compared to the general population’s 4–6%. Mental health challenges serve as a precursor to homelessness while experiencing homelessness exacerbates and amplifies the risk of developing mental health issues. As responsible and concerned community members, we must closely scrutinize these statistics and place them within the framework of engaging with the homeless population through a social work person-in-environment lens. This strengths-based intersectional approach entails comprehending and tackling the intricate elements that lead to homelessness and offering support and intervention to aid individuals and families facing homelessness.
Philadelphia must invest in affordable housing programs that create stable, long-term solutions considering the evolving needs and demographics of those most impacted by housing instability and chronic homelessness. This includes the continued construction of affordable housing units and providing tailored and targeted financial support to low-income individuals and families. The city should implement comprehensive homelessness prevention strategies like rent assistance and job training programs. As a preventative measure, strengthening tenant rights and protections would be essential in averting further instances of homelessness. Therefore, the Fair Housing Commission must collaborate with community-based legal services, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Office of Homeless Services, nonprofit organizations, and other shelter and housing services agencies. Together, they should establish safeguards in a largely unregulated rental housing market. These safeguards should encompass rent control measures and measures to prevent unjust evictions, ultimately ensuring that residents can maintain housing. This strategy would necessitate strategic urban planning, zoning policies and a dedication to inclusive housing development initiatives.
From a research perspective, it is vital to consistently update statistics and data, as these are crucial for making well-informed decisions. The City of Philadelphia should also invest in ongoing research and data collection to monitor progress in housing equity research. This path forward will enable them to identify and address areas that require improvement, fostering a more equitable and stable housing environment.
While the research to date may not fully capture my personal journey as a trans woman of color with many identifiers of risk, who has struggled with chronic housing instability for well over a decade, my own lived experiences certainly do. In addition to relying on empirical research, we must strive to embrace the personal narratives of those who have experienced homelessness. These stories are essential for a comprehensive understanding and dismantling of the systemic, sociocultural and sociopolitical barriers that contribute to the homelessness crisis in our city. I hope that no one has to endure being on a waiting list for more than half of their life, as I have, awaiting a housing letter from the PHA that, sadly, may never arrive in their lifetime.