SELF Inc. is a nonprofit organization that provides temporary housing and counseling services to those experiencing homelessness. SELF, which stands for Strengthening and Empowering Lives and Futures, runs a variety of housing programs, including emergency shelters, addiction recovery housing, and transitional housing. Due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, the organization has focused more on providing emergency housing, while ensuring staff and clients remain reasonably safe from COVID-19.
According to a 2019 study conducted by the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services, there are about 5,700 people experiencing homelessness in the city at any given time, which includes 950 unsheltered people — those who truly have nowhere to go. People experiencing homelessness also face difficulties obtaining the necessary resources, like hand sanitizer and masks, to reduce their own risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Rhashidah Perry-Jones has been the vice president and chief communications officer at SELF since 2017. Perry-Jones is also the founder of Philadelphia Black Public Relations Society. Prior to working with SELF, she worked in executive and managerial roles in both government and the nonprofit sector. In the following conversation, she talks about how SELF Inc has continued to provide housing services to those most in need during the pandemic.
How has COVID-19 impacted Philadelphia’s housing insecure?
We, at our different sites, have had to make sure that we have mitigation efforts that account for social distancing. Which means we don’t have as many people at the emergency housing sites as we did.
Our most vulnerable participants have been moved out of emergency housing, those who are over 65 and those who may have underlying conditions like diabetes or hypertension.
As you may know, people that are experiencing homelessness tend to have health issues because there’s no continuity of care. So, we have worked with the Office of Homeless Services to get a lot of those individuals out of emergency housing — out of congregate settings — and into prevention sites. The Fairfield Inn and I think the Holiday Inn are now becoming prevention sites.
The City’s expectation is to hopefully have folks transfer from there into permanent supportive, or some type of permanent, housing. Of course, if they are not able to do that, we will accept them back into emergency housing. But what we really want is that folks can go into their own permanent housing.
What have the city or state government done that has been particularly helpful, or unhelpful?
Well, we generally don’t deal too much with the state. I think it was the governor that created a moratorium on evictions and a moratorium on foreclosures. So, you know, that’s one part of it as it relates to homelessness.
We are contracted with the City of Philadelphia through the Office of Homeless Services, so we directly deal with the City of Philadelphia. However, the state has a PA CARES Act. The federal government has a CARES Act too, so the federal and state government are providing funding for the Office of Homeless Services, so that they can pay for the prevention and quarantine sites. In addition, there are some funds that the Office of Homeless Services have that can pay for PPE or hand sanitizer, but not to the extent that is needed because of COVID.
Have you experienced an increase in need? How have you served that need?
A lot of our program partners would come into our shelters and deliver services. They can’t do that any longer. People that are in our programs don’t typically have the same degree of services that they had prior to COVID-19, so that is a challenge.
People have been very giving, helping out in the ways that they could and in ways that they can. We’ve also had people come in with clothing. People come in, that we have a relationship with, who have wanted to donate food. We have had volunteers coming out to help out any way that they can, largely through money, or donating masks and other types of safety materials. We are required to wear masks, so those are costs that homeless shelters or emergency housing sites generally don’t have to incur.
There has not been a decrease in any of our services or any of our programming, but there has been a decrease in our program partners who will come in and provide services. But as it relates to our case, the management team has been on top of it.
What are the safety precautions that have been implemented at SELF’s sites?
We are having some barriers built so that people, while they’re sleeping, can have some degree of protection. The City of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services are purchasing barriers that they can provide to homeless shelters, or to emergency housing sites, so that we can have barriers between beds.
We are cleaning high traffic areas every 30 minutes. There are signs asking people to distance from each other. We have tape on the floor to show what six feet looks like when people are in line.
Instead of everyone going to the cafeteria or to the dining area to eat at one time, there are different times that people go so that the cafeteria isn’t as full. There’s social distancing at the tables. Eating, and all the things that people did communally, are basically being done in shifts.
In what way has COVID-19 affected your organization?
Our workers are essential workers. They have had to come in. It’s not like we can work from home. Most of our folks are coming into the office every day and providing the essential services that we need to have. Some of our team members have needed to modify their schedules due to schools closing, so that they would have the availability to take care of their children or their loved ones.
The other thing is making sure that we can access and purchase the supplies that we previously may not have had because of the increased amount of cleaning. There’s more cleaning solutions that we need to have.
There is the impact on food services. We are trying to limit the amount of people that are in the cafeteria. We have moved to grab-and-go meals in order to decrease the amount of contact.
Does the organization have access to testing?
The way people come into our sites is through the Office of Homeless Services, so they go through the screening at the Office of Homeless Services. In winter, people can access some of our sites after hours, so we do check temperatures and we do screen people at our sites as well. We have also done our own testing at our Station House.
The City and the Department of Health have not required that people be tested before they come into emergency housing. They do have an assessment that they do, which we asked them to do. Temperatures are taken, and people entering emergency housing sites are asked a couple of screening questions. Our concern is that a lot of the research shows that people can be asymptomatic.
How can people help? Are there any other supplies that the community can donate?
Just be supportive of people who are experiencing homelessness. They need to know that they are cared for. If you feel like it’s safe — or not safe because you don’t want to go up to anyone — you can always ask them how they’re doing. Go in, go to Wawa, and buy them something to eat.
We do take monetary donations. And any supplies, like personal care packages, are helpful.
As a community, we have to make sure that people are being treated fairly and have an opportunity for housing. So, that means calling your local City Council member and saying that you support people experiencing homelessness. The city has about 35,000 vacant homes. Tell them that homes shouldn’t be vacant when there are about 1,000 people experiencing street homelessness.
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