Poverty, unemployment and homelessness are prevalent issues in Philadelphia and often wholly connected.
In Mantua, the 23 percent unemployment rate among adults is the most direct contributor to poverty for households and individuals who live there. Without support or a means to pay rent or mortgage, sustained poverty can often lead to homelessness.
Several organizations exist in Mantua to combat unemployment and gradually eradicate the effects of poverty, most commonly through means such as educational support, like the GED prep program at the Dornsife Center or computer classes at the West Philadelphia Community Center.
West Philadelphia Community Center also hosts a multitude of job training and readiness programs.
Regardless, there is only one organization which aims to address the root causes of homelessness and remedy them through these methods, while leading families back into stable homes and simultaneously engaging in community development. The People’s Emergency Center, located at 325 North 39th St., is beyond definition as just a homeless shelter.
For resident Val Fortay, PEC is not home, but a newly discovered path to home.
“I’ve been here only four months, and I feel more sure of my future than I ever did in my life,” Fortay said.
Fortay came to PEC in February with her infant daughter Kahree and the clothes on her back. She said she remembers the day she fled the home of an abusive relative after a violent fight.
“I didn’t even bother to take anything with me, except for Kahree’s carrier,” Fortay said. “I ran here, and I was lucky they had a place for me. They did intake right there and then and put me and Kahree in a shared room.”
Since, Fortay has attended nearly every job readiness seminar PEC has to offer. She has had the benefit of counseling and therapy services and is on her way into transitional housing within the next two months.
Fortay’s story is not uncommon in Philadelphia.
At any given time in Philadelphia, there are approximately 4,000 people living on the streets or in homeless shelters like PEC, according to a report from Project HOME.
In 2005, Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Shelter and Services served 14,986 homeless people in emergency shelters. Of this number, 9,468 were single adults, 2,011 were heads of household and 3,507 were children.
PEC addresses the need for homeless support on multiple fronts through housing transition.
“When you first come into the program, it’s usually an emergency and they only focus on helping you with what you need right then, like clothes for me and Kahree, health insurance, food and all,” Fortay explained.
PEC then moves toward the next phase, transitional housing, in which clients “graduate” to goals of self- sufficiency.
“After your immediate problems are taken care of, then you transition into another level, where you begin making plans and taking steps,” Fortay said. “You move out into your own room and learn how to keep your own space.”
The final step is permanent housing, where clients are transitioned into permanent homes of their own.
“They help you find a place that you can afford, they help you move in, and they support you until you don’t need them anymore,” Fortay said.
The organizers behind PEC are trying to expand outside of Mantua into Saunders Park, West Powelton, Belmont and Mill Creek.
Through its Community Development arm, PEC provides support in real estate development and economic improvement.
Its real estate development strides include over $57 million in investments with the goal of repurposing about 140 vacant lots and properties into over 200 units of liveable, affordable housing.
In addition, PEC has provided support to homeowners in need of affordable repairs.
PEC’s Community Development has also taken responsibility for the condition of the shopping district on Lancaster Avenue. The goal is to restore Lancaster Avenue and make it a bustling marketplace to replace the sagging storefronts and crumbling sidewalks.
Ultimately, the goal of the People’s Emergency Center is not just to provide emergency services, but to supplement those services with empowerment and self- reliance. Its commitment to that goal resonates not only in the lives of people like Val and Kahree Fortay, but in the very structure of the community itself.