Christine Gilyard was given a second chance at life. Homeless and addicted to drugs, she was trying to numb the pain of life. She was living in a shelter as she coped with her only son’s life sentence in prison.
Stumbling upon housing advocacy group, Dignity Housing, Gilyard committed to getting off drugs through a secured living environment. Unlike an outpatient program or recovery center, Dignity simply provides those who need it with a place to live. Equipped with support networks, case managers and other influential advisors, Dignity prides itself on ending homelessness and moving families out of poverty. Instead of treating symptoms, Dignity evaluates the vast causes of homelessness and then individualizes treatment based on those factors.
The three-pronged housing umbrella provides a safe haven to those struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and other obstacles that make obtaining affordable housing a reality.
“We don’t want to lose the dignity of these neighborhoods,” said co-founder of Dignity Housing Alicia Christian, “we want people to better themselves, to want to better themselves.”
Substance abusers like Gilyard, as well as single mothers faced with domestic violence, are housed in 16 gated apartment units in Germantown. Just one of the organizations housing programs, the D-II program is intended to teach women and men to be self-sufficient members of society through guided education.
After five years at Dignity, Gilyard has 19 months of sobriety and is 50 points away from earning a GED. “They gave me opportunities I never thought I’d get,” Gilyard said. “When I came into dignity I didn’t have a clue as to how to maintain a house or pay bills.”
One of her neighbors, Stephanie Dingle, is a 31-year-old single mother and recovering PCP addict, which is a street drug commonly referred to as angel dust. Dingle has been given over 50 awards by Dignity Housing and is a leader among the residents of the program. “I used to lay in the bed and just wish that God would take my life. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I just wanted him to take the breath from my body,” said Dingle, who is currently pursuing a degree and works as a chef.
“I feel as though I’m a strong person. It’s just that sometimes I need that support, so that someone understands what I’m talking about and what I’m going through,” said Dingle, who credits Dignity with giving her the gift of a space where she can raise her children and begin the next phase of her life.
Dignity Housing began as a group of homeless advocates in the mid- to late 1980s. Those efforts of protest became what is now an entity that has served over 2,000 adults and children while providing over $180,000 in scholarships to beneficiaries of the program.
Dignity is unique in its outreach, which stretches deep and wide, because of its versatile program options that include job training, counseling, internship opportunities and more. The majority of its housing is located in Germantown, Mt. Airy and Oak Lane, with residents staying anywhere from two to five years.
The non-profit has helped its residents help themselves through its long track record of monetary support for education. After leaving the program, residents have obtained bachelor’s, medical and doctorate degrees. “I want no more and no less from our members than I would for my own daughter,” Christian said.
Denise O’ Malley is another graduate of Dignity Housing, coming to the organization for help after substance abuse issues with heroin. “I’m grateful. I feel very blessed to be the person, mother, employee and friend that I can be now. I didn’t know how to be a mom–or any of those other things before that. I didn’t know how to buy clothes for myself, go grocery shopping or feed my child. My daughter would cry and I wouldn’t be able to breathe. Dignity believed in me. The people there gave me the tools in my tool box that I can use every single day for the rest of my life, that no one can ever take from me.”
Another organization advocating for the homeless is Covenant House of Pennsylvania, located on Armat Street in Germantown. What initially began as a street outreach program providing food, laundry facilities and medical
care referrals to youths mostly located within Kensington, has since evolved into the largest provider of services to homeless youth under 21 in Philadelphia.
Covenant House of Pennsylvania started its operations in June 1999 and quickly found out its services were much needed in the community. Realizing the need to expand on the foundation it laid out, it opened the Crisis Residence and Community Services Center in June 2000. This provided eight beds and an expanded program for those involved. Just a short time later, in October 2001, the organization moved to its current location where it was again expanded, this time to include 51 beds.
Program Director Colleen Landy said that kids come to Covenant House for a variety of reasons including being abused, having drug-addicted parents, getting kicked out of the house or being rejected because they are homosexual. “What’s great is that they all come here by choice. No one forces them to come here,” she said.
About 40 percent of the young people in Covenant House Pennsylvania have previously come from foster care. Approximately 3,000 children annually in Philadelphia are cycled through the foster care system. “Many of our participants have gone through foster care, and, unfortunately for them, some foster parents do not support their children after they stop receiving checks when the child turns 18,” Landy said.
In 2010, a total of 465 young people were housed in the crisis center, with an average stay of 40 days. Also in 2010, the street outreach team contacted more than 4,000 youths. “We may not be able to see all the benefits throughout the lives of the youth we serve, but we always like to say that we planted the seed for them to move on,” Landy said.
The outreach team is a critical part to Covenant House. Communication Director Maureen McElaney has seen the advantages of having a team within the organization. “We have two vans, they go all around the city reaching out to anyone they think may be in need,” McElaney said. The outreach team also helps in the community. They clean the streets around the crisis center and try to make their presence felt. As a part of the Germantown community, Covenant House of Pennsylvania wants its members to feel a part of the community as well.
Covenant House Pennsylvania has an open intake policy. No one who comes in to seek help is turned away. The majority of young people seeking assistance reside in Philadelphia, while some are from the surrounding suburbs. They have even had contact with youths from over the Delaware River into Camden, N.J.
Job preparedness is another service provided at Covenant House Pennsylvania. The staff will assess the job qualifications and work history of a youth in the program. Part of this assessment includes an activity called Life Maps, which helps the staff determine what services the youth will need in relation to their goals and life experiences. In addition, each youth that enrolls in the program is signed up for a job readiness class called Covenant House Orientation in Career Enhancement Skills. In this class, youth participants are shown the skills neccesary to obtain employment, which include resume writing and interview preparedness.