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The Rise of Homelessness in Philadelphia



empty home
empty houses can be used as secure shelters for homeless

(This research is used to establish Rickety's backstory in Olney:2009 and upcoming novel Posey)


Homelessness in Philadelphia

These notes are taken

from Billy Penn at WHYY

Written by Max Marin Feb 2021







1970’s Most shelters aren’t open 7 days a week in Philadelphia. Nixon and Reagan era (1969-1989) strip federal housing subsidies and the homeless are left in the streets. Overcrowded and unsafe, and with a rise in homelessness, the shelters are an undesirable choice.


1985 Lawsuit from American Civil Liberties Union forces (Mayor Wilson Goode) that homeless should 'not be turned away from shelters on the ground that the city has no money to pay.'


1988 “HOMELESS NOT HELPLESS” signs hang along Northeast Philadelphia vacant properties. Organized by Chris Sprowal (Philly activist who became leader of National Union of the Homeless). Tactic to draw attention to the rise of homelessness with reminder of humanity was 'radical', even by today’s terms… and it worked. Created the principle: Poverty victims must be at the forefront of the movement to end poverty (Johnnie Tillmon model) . Peaceful demonstrations lead to negotiations with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Secure hundreds of publicly owned housing and transfer to the unhoused.


Dignity Housing – an example of a homeless-led organization (Northwest Philadelphia) treating the complex needs of the homeless and creates humane options as the rise of homelessness continues.


1989 Sister Mary Scullion “We need the city, state, federal government and private sector to be rowing in the same direction. When three of four are out of sync, it’s a real problem.” When a homeless woman dies of exposure, Wilson Goode refuses to take blame.


1990’s Criminalization of behavior from people who use panhandling and living in communal groups for survival. Sprowal, Scullion and other homeless activists set up camp outside the State Office Building at Broad and Spring Garden for a month long occupation. Freed up $1 million in state aid for the city to add 500 shelter beds.


1991 Philadelphia has 5,400 beds in shelters (3,400 by 2023). But, deplorable conditions in the facilities. Realization among activists that shelters should just be temporary. There needs to be secure housing for the poor. Sprowal, with other shelter residents, start to organize again.


1993 Mayor Ed Rendell – city clears sprawling encampments (ie 300 people from Market Street subway concourse, 100 people Logan Circle Family Court Building, and JFK plaza at Ben Franklin Bridge). These occupations last months, angering residents and businesses. Officials say health concerns justify their use of force to clear them away.

1994 Anti-homelessness Ordinance gains popularity among residents to clear out homeless encampments.


1995 Families experiencing homelessness housed at a shuttered North Philadelphia church for 6 months. Government agrees to give handful of vacant houses. Financial crises close shelters even though rise of homelessness continues.


2005 Philadelphia establishes Housing Trust Fund for affordable housing projects. Lawmakers push zoning policies to mandate affordable units in certain types of projects and offer perks to builders who incorporated below market rate units. But, Philadelphia has only 29 available units for every 100 poor households, well below the national average.


2012 Mayor Nutter bans giving out free food in the city’s parks


2016 Mayor Kenney allows giving free food away in parks.

U.S. encampments (like tent cities on the Parkway and Ridge Avenue 2020) have a 1342% increase in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016.


2020 Office of Homeless Services find that 10,000 people enter an emergency shelter, safe haven, or transitional housing project but only 25% of them enter permanent affordable housing. CARES Act funding helps Philadelphia start rent relief programs but are mostly given in backpay. Those in poverty don’t have the start-up funds.


2023 Tiny House Villages are planned for West Philly Mill Creek neighborhood and on State Road in the Northeast, providing a maximum of 48 units…..

But, unhoused population is about to explode again and many are skeptical about one-off housing settlements at the local level without a larger infusion of federal aid. Marcia Fudge, Biden’s pick to lead HUD, quoted as saying, “First priority would be to advocate for more rent relief and expand housing vouchers.”


Other interesting reads found in my research:


Digging Up Vine Street In Search of Old Skid Row Hidden City April 26, 2017 by Steve Metraus


Philadelphia Catholic Social Services details from 1807 to today


History of Tent Cites by Chris Herring


Evaluating the Evidence for Improving Health Outcomes Among People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness Committee on an Evaluation of Permanent Supportive Housing Programs for Homeless Individuals Kenneth Kizer (Chair)


The History of Homelessness Through The United States Appendix B from Committee on an Evaluation of Permanent Supportive Housing Programs for Homeless Individuals Kenneth Kizer (Chair)




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