Native Philadelphian Liz Hersh is the director of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services. Prior to working for the city, Hersh ran the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania for 14 years. Her experience has given her insight working with Philadelphia’s homeless residents.
What led you to this job as the director of the Office of Homeless Services?
I think the opportunity to do some good. I really like the administration. I think the mayor is governing from a place of values and a place of moral strength and clarity around poverty and homelessness and trying to do something about that. It was a job that I felt I could approach with integrity, and the leadership made it feel like it was going to be a supportive and effective use of time and resources for me.
What goals do you have at the Office of Homeless Services?
The mission is to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring in spite of tremendous obstacles in the environment. And what we do is provide the leadership, planning, coordination and funding, some of which comes from the city and some is conduit for state and federal funding, to provide the network of emergency, temporary and long-term housing to help people address homelessness.
How do you work with organizations in the city to fight against homelessness?
The city mostly works through a network of almost 70 not-for-profit providers throughout the city. Some of them are faith-based, some aren’t. Mostly, that’s how the work gets delivered. We do run intake centers where we do a centralized intake for our shelter system, and we run prevention and diversion services. And the city also does outreach.
Can you talk about that?
Yeah, it’s actually funded through the Department of Behavioral Health, but obviously we’re all part of the same system of services. So there’s I think eight teams out there now 24/7, 365 days a year reaching out to people who are actually on the streets and helping them access services.
Have you noticed a change in homelessness in Philadelphia since you’ve been with this office?
It’s interesting. The number of people experiencing homelessness has gone down, but the number of people on the streets has gone up. The reason for the increase on the streets seems to be the opioid crisis. This is happening pretty much every city around the state, that the numbers of unsheltered people are going up. Looking at the demographics and what people are telling us, it really looks like the opioid crisis is the culprit
The other problem we’ve seen, like most cities, is the rise in the number of people who are panhandling, and again that goes back to the opioid crisis. The tentacles of that crisis are a big part of what we’re grappling with.
What projects and initiatives have you been taking to battle or try to limit that crisis?
Yes, we work closely with the Department of Behavioral Health and the Department of Public Health. We’re actually organized into a Health and Human Services cabinet, so we’re working together, all of us. What we have been doing is funding different kinds of housing-first models that are designed for people who are homeless and have some kind of substance-use addiction. Pathways to Housing and Horizon House are two major providers of that kind of service. In fact, in the last year the number of people who are homeless in Kensington has gone down by 100. It doesn’t feel that way necessarily on the street, but that’s what our numbers indicate.
We have increased outreach. There’s three new outreach teams on the street, and we have one very strong program called Journey of Hope for people who are chronically homeless and have a substance-use disorder. So we’ve been trying to move people out of that program as they complete it, and move into permanent housing to open up more space. This is with the intention to create more low-barrier smaller facilities, or safe havens, where people can come in. The old idea was that you had to be clean and sober before you could come in. The new thinking is to keep it low-barrier, so people can come in as they are. The hope is that, as their physical needs are met, they’ll be willing to accept treatment. We’ve also added daytime engagement programs so people have a place to come in off the street.
Are there any programs you’re working toward piloting and potentially utilizing in the near future?
One thing that we’re doing is piloting homelessness diversion. Right now we’re already diverting about half the people who come to our front doors, and what we’re trying to do is target diversion so that we can help people who do have any kind of viable alternative. But sometimes that costs money. For example, we just had someone in the last two weeks who showed up at the door, said they were homeless, needed to come into shelter and what they really had was utility debt. When we were able to satisfy the utility debt, they were able to move back into the apartment. That is a case where a person really doesn’t need to come into a $40 a night shelter. What they really need is a small amount of money to solve the housing problem they have. We’re looking more and more at how you do that. Because we have high poverty and there’s such need, it’s a tricky balance. Everybody needs a little bit more money, so how do you identify those people who will become virtually homeless if they don’t receive that assistance.
Do you have any other programs that you’re looking into?
Yes, a secondary thing we’re also looking into is shallow rent. There are landlords who want to help. This will apply when people have a very small income and maybe they can only afford like $200 a month to pay toward the rent. So can we subsidize it at a modest level and help them be stably housed, rather than cycling through the shelter system.
The third thing we’re piloting is working with some partners to see if we can take a couple empty houses and fix them up and have them become actual places where people can live.
-Text by Jonathan Ginsburg, image courtesy of City of Philadelphia.