This Student-Run Philadelphia Shelter Wants to Change Your Attitude About Homelessness

At this shelter, the lives of the people experiencing homelessness matter.

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Feb 22 2018, 5:00pm

This is an opinion piece by Stephanie Sena, founder of SREHUP, an initiative of Philadelphia area college students who house individuals experiencing homelessness during the coldest months of the winter and help connect them to the services they need to climb out of homelessness.

Because people experiencing homelessness often lack a social network- they are strangers to most of us. Nonetheless, they are much more likely to suffer abuse on the streets than be the perpetrators.

This was the sad fate of one of the most beautiful men to enter my shelter. From the moment I met Jon, I knew he was special. He came to us weighed down with books on sign language. He was teaching himself how to sign because he had recently lost his hearing -- a result of spending months at Ground Zero immediately following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Jon was a first responder of those tragic events. As others fled New York in droves to escape the destruction, Jon ran towards it motivated by the need to save the victims from the rubble. It was in the noise and chaos of the rubble that he gained his purpose, but lost his hearing. And here he was, a few years later -- homeless and deaf, trying to regain his footing.

"Seven years ago, my college students and I decided to open up a homeless shelter in Philadelphia, and we invited students from Philadelphia universities, high schools, and elementary schools to join us."

At our shelter, Jon did what he does best- - contribute to the greater good. After dinner, Jon was the first in the kitchen cleaning dishes, then mopping the floor. He quickly befriended my daughter Sylvia, and began to teach her sign language. Each night he would give her lessons in this universal language. And she reveled in her newly acquired skills. Sylvia taught her friends sign language in school, and brought her friends to the shelter at night so they could take lessons from Jon. We all learned and grew with Jon's lessons.

To the outside world, Jon was a stranger. But to us, he was a friend and a teacher. One night I showed up at the shelter with Sylvia and her friends in tow, all excited for their sign language lessons.

And there was no Jon.

The next night there was still no Jon.


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And I began to worry. It was unlike him to be absent. The worry began to gnaw at me. It grew as the days passed until it became full blown anxiety. Finally, at the end of the second week, Jon reappeared. Or what was left of him. He stumbled into the shelter bearing a gash on his forehead. As he crossed the threshold into our shelter he collapsed on the floor and began to shake rhythmically back and forth. I crawled down to the floor to hold him. As I rocked him in my arms, Jon explained to me in fits and starts that he had spent the past two weeks in the hospital. He was ambulanced there after a crowd of boys threw a brick at his head and stole his backpack. I struggled to hold back tears as he explained that he suffered brain damage in the attack, and was now experiencing frequent seizures. Jon could hardly get off the floor or form full sentences.

He was a shadow of his former self. In the place of vibrant, energetic Jon was now sick, scared, and lost Jon. But what had we lost when we let Jon be treated like garbage? Even before he was attacked, when we allowed this 9/11 first responder, this patriot, this neighbor, this human being- to be treated like refuse. Like a stranger in his own land. Someone to be considered dangerous, less than, other. What have we lost? And how, if not through fearless compassion, can we hope to regain it?

Jon with Stephanie's daughter, Sylvia. (image via the author)

Seven years ago, my college students and I decided to open up a homeless shelter in Philadelphia, and we invited students from Philadelphia universities, high schools, and elementary schools to join us. We consistently have over 300 volunteers, ranging in age and grade- students from elementary schools including William M. Meredith Elementary to college students from Penn, Swarthmore, Villanova, PCOM, and Drexel. We called our shelter Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP). Stories like Jon’s have been changing our lives and compelling us to action ever since. SREHUP serves marginalized members of our community, providing these people temporary housing in addition to services and support they require to secure long-term housing.

The student volunteers come to the shelter to break bread and join in the community with our guests. At SREHUP, everyone serves each other.

"The lives of the people experiencing homelessness matter. Their stories have the power to change our minds. They drive us into the voting booths, into the street marches, into each other’s hearts, and closer to ourselves."

I teach courses on poverty and homelessness at Villanova University. After learning the history of homelessness, and the pathways to poverty, my students volunteer at SREHUP. There is a reciprocity in this work. The students provide food, warmth, and a safe place to sleep. And when the students are speaking to the people experiencing homelessness and learning from them, they hear personal stories and their worldviews are expanded as a result.

These smart and passionate students are able to put names and faces to people who are experiencing homelessness, humanizing the experience. After students volunteer at the shelter and engage in dialogue with the men who stay there, they will bring with them the stories they have learned throughout their career and in their fight for social justice. The lives of the people experiencing homelessness matter. Their stories have the power to change our minds. They drive us into the voting booths, into the street marches, into each other’s hearts, and closer to ourselves.

SREHUP has a proven track record of success. We have helped move hundreds of our vulnerable neighbors from street to housing in our seven years of operating a shelter. The same guests stay with us all winter while we link them to social workers and services they need to get back on their feet. This is not a band-aid, it's real and lasting help that changes lives.

However, in the course of doing this work the students recognized a gap in the services. 250 people in Philadelphia still died while experiencing homelessness last year. A portion of these people died from hypothermia. Of those who died from hypothermia, many were homeless with their pets. And there are no shelters in Philadelphia that house people and their pets. SREHUP has been operating shelters in churches for over seven years, and we have had to turn away countless individuals who are seeking shelter with their pets, pets who are in most cases their best friend and only companion.

SREHUP is providing the solution. We are on the verge of opening the first shelter in Philadelphia to house both people and their pets. And we are ensuring that there is greater access to all people who need shelter- including those who don’t want to be separated from their animal companions.

"We have helped move hundreds of our vulnerable neighbors from street to housing in our seven years of operating a shelter."

Students are by nature innovative. And their creativity is in full use at SREHUP- especially with our partnerships and program offerings. SREHUP collaborations include (but are not limited to) R and B Farms INC, which is building our rooftop garden, installing solar panels, creating a plan for sustainability and green practices, and leading workshops, classes, and job training for the guests at our shelter. We are also partnering with Charge Performance and Wellness which offers regular free fitness training workouts and wellness education classes at our shelter. In addition to a garden and fitness classes, we have a variety of art programs, workshops, job trainings, and entrepreneurial programs. All designed to engage our guests in mind, body, and spirit.

SREHUP is not a Band-Aid. It’s a holistic approach designed to get people back on their feet, while educating students on social justice. And we are more than a shelter. We are a movement. Please join us as we work for a more peaceful and just world. Whether you are a student or not, there is a place for you in this movement. You can help us purchase our dream building by donating and sharing our GoFundMe page. And you can like us on facebook to learn how you can be involved. We even have tutorials for how you can open your own pet-friendly shelter in your city. We can guide you on your journey, and encourage you with your own initiatives for creating a more fearlessly compassionate world. The world is waiting.

In order to provide these kinds of fundamental services for this population, Covenant House -- America's largest non-profit shelter network that has been on the front lines protecting the lives of at-risk young adults for more than 40 years -- also needs your support. You can make a difference by donating to their organization too, and watching SHELTER above.