The 1300 block of Ridge Avenue is easy to ignore. It’s a stunted little short cut in between Broad Street and Spring Garden, a washed out landscape filled with the fleeting remnants of post-industrial decay. Most keep their eyes trained ahead as they pass the rag tag line of men waiting to be admitted into the Ridge Center. One would never suspect that behind the fading blue walls of one of the city’s largest homeless shelters there was a wealth of positivity, creative thinking and productivity brewing.
The Ridge Center provides emergency housing and operates as one of Philadelphia’s largest homeless intake services. The shelter processes the majority of the city’s single homeless men and either admits them as residents or tries to place them in other facilities. For many, the job may sound draining, if not a completely unappealing task. Yet, the staff at the Ridge Center appears driven by the potential of their clients and the motivation to get the men back on their feet.
In the last month the Ridge Center has lead one of the city’s biggest donation drives for the earthquake victims in Haiti, spearheaded in part by four-month resident and native Philadelphian Gerald Ford.
“We’re just people that live in a shelter, but we let people know that it’s not about being homeless. There are a lot of different walks of life here, from judges to doctors to lawyers, living here because of the economic crisis that’s going on. So, because we are in a bad predicament doesn’t mean that we don’t have the time to help somebody else,” said Ford.
Standing beside a dense pile of towering boxes waiting to be shipped to Haiti, Catherine Canady, a support counselor, explained. “I think the Haiti drive was for the gentlemen here to not feel self centered and one of the things we’re trying to do here is to teach Philadelphia that just because the men here at Ridge Avenue Shelter are homeless, they are not helpless. They just got caught up in the pay cuts, the budget cuts and they wound up here. The Haiti drive for us was a humungous task, but we pulled it off and sent out almost 700 boxes of children’s clothes, men’s and women’s clothes, canned goods, crutches, canes, pampers, all kinds of stuff that’s been donated.”
Ford and residents also recently started a publication. Now in it’s second edition, “One Step Away,” is a monthly newspaper written and produced entirely by the residents of the shelter. As one of the headline says, the paper “Gives Voice To The Voiceless” with stories on employer abuses on homeless laborers and meditations on the emotional hurdles of getting back on track after losing it all.
Many people associate homeless shelters like Ridge Center as places for drug addicts, alcoholics and career vagabonds. It is an unfortunate slight on the North Philadelphia shelter and a general misperception that keep many who have lost their homes and livelihood, in the recent downturn of the economy out of the shelters and sleeping on the streets.
“The shelter system, we got this stigma but the same person that can have a house fire, the same person who can lose the job he had for a long time, they could be here in the same position,” said Jerome Bennett, a support counselor. “Listen, I call this ‘ground zero’ for them to understand that you’re at the bottom. It’s time to you to build back up. In life everybody falls down and the bottom line is you going to have to get back up, one way or the other.”
Empowerment appears to be a crusade for many of the support staff at Ridge Center with camaraderie and a job well done as their return.
“They are down and out and they don’t have a place to live but one of the things they do have is a caring and loving family here. We just want them to get back on your feet so they can move out back into society, back into the workplace, back into schools and be a success. That’s our goal. We change lives here,” says Canady
She adds with a smile, “And the doors are always open.”
For donation inquiries contact:
1360 Ridge Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19121