Social Issues: One Day At A Time Provides Recovery and Homelessness Services During Pandemic

Homelessness and addiction often go hand in hand. One Day at a Time (ODAAT) is a Philadelphia organization that aims to combat both through support and outreach.

ODAAT operates several facilities and programs around the city to help people suffering from homelessness and addiction, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“COVID hit our population very hard this last year in 2020,” chief of staff Job Suender said. “The fact that we’re not able to actually have groups physically, that’s been a huge detriment to a lot of people’s recovery.” 

ODAAT operates under a larger nonprofit organization called the Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC). ODAAT offers recovery programs, homeless outreach services, and homeless housing. Programs focus on those suffering from drug or alcohol abuse, homelessness, and mental health issues, Suender said. ODAAT also offers ex-offender employment programs, reentry programs, and youth services.

“ODAAT has been able to continue to grow throughout the pandemic,” he said. “We were able to take on a couple new contracts with the City, different outreach initiatives.”

Thanks to City support, Suender and other staff have been able to focus more on street-level outreach over the past year. 

Job Suender, the chief of staff at ODAAT.

“One site in Kensington, we were able to do a drop-in center,” he said. “So that’s a facility where we conduct outreach on the street, try to bring [individuals] in for services. We provided three meals a day, showers, and 35 overnight beds.” 

The Kensington site was open from April to September last year, and then reopened between December and March. This provided more opportunity to engage with unhoused people and try to connect them with services they may need, Suender said.

Kimberlie Golden is the residential site manager at ODAAT’s main homeless shelter, located at 2432 W. Lehigh Ave. She is responsible for admissions, discharges, and keeping case notes on the clients. 

Kimberlie Golden, the residential site manager at ODAAT’s main shelter.

This shelter is ODAAT’s largest, housing up to 80 individuals and ODAAT’s Encampment Program, an initiative directly reaching out to homeless encampments along Kensington and Frankford avenues. 

“This is a short-term facility,” Golden said. “We try to keep clients here just to make sure they’re on the right stage of their recovery, but our goal is to get them into their own transitional housing unit.”

The shelter has implemented new procedures since the start of the pandemic, including an earlier curfew, stricter cleaning procedures, and barriers between the beds.

“Unfortunately, this is a homeless shelter, so not everybody cleans as much as we would like them to,” Golden said. “But since this is an emergency shelter, there is only so much that we can require. Because we are under the City’s jurisdiction, we can’t discharge people for not showering, not washing their clothes, stuff like that.”

For many residents, ODAAT is a last refuge.

James Rodgers is a resident at one of the recovery houses operated by ODAAT, but he is also a program coordinator with ODAAT and a residential aide for the UAC. With UAC, he helps to supervise the men’s halfway house, which is located down the street from the shelter. Rodgers helps staff the building, making sure all the other residents do their chores and handle their responsibilities.

James Rodgers, preparing food in the kitchen at ODAAT’s main shelter.

“I intervene when there’s any problems,” he said. “I make sure that the clients eat. Same with the [shelter]. I document what’s going on during the course of the day, make rounds every half-hour to make sure there’s no illegal behavior.”

Rodgers is himself in recovery, having two years clean.

“I had done 15 years without doing crack [cocaine], but the first time around I didn’t invest in my life as a recovering addict,” he said. “I didn’t bother to educate myself about the process of recovery, I didn’t bother to accumulate the information.”

Rodgers is a member of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and stands firmly behind the organization, he said. Additionally, he partakes in outpatient group sessions with ODAAT.

“Since coming back, I’ve invested in my life and the process of recovery,” he said. “I’m here for life now no matter where I live at, where I go at, who I’m with. Besides my relationship with almighty God, my recovery comes first.”

Rodgers is adamant about not making any of the same mistakes he made in the past.

“Thinking I’m OK, thinking I’m cool, thinking I got it, that’s the biggest mistake I made,” he said.

After living at the recovery house for the past 28 months, Rodgers is hoping to move out and into his own apartment. He believes he is ready and he credits his progress to, among other things, staff at ODAAT. 

“When I relapsed after 15 years without crack [cocaine], I prayed to God for help and he brought me back here,” Rodgers said, adding with a laugh, “I was happy about it.”

Christopher Deans is the director of shelter services at ODAAT and said the pandemic has had an enormous impact on everything that they do. 

“Before COVID, we had robust programming,” he said. “From NA groups every day to all sorts of recovery initiatives.”

COVID restrictions have impacted programming greatly, Deans said. In a facility that can accommodate upward of 80 people, there is limited space to congregate while maintaining proper social distancing. Prior to the pandemic, ODAAT would pull people from all its facilities to the main shelter. Various programs met every Friday morning, but that is no longer possible.

“With recovery, [the client] has to be an active participant and a big part of that is participating in groups and socializing,” Deans said. 

COVID-19 precautions have had at least one unintentional benefit. Part of ODAAT’s safety procedures require basic check-in with clients, to see how they are feeling and assess for illness. But the check-in has also helped staff build relationships with clients.

“It kind of opens a door to start a dialogue,” Deans said. “Like, ‘OK, where are you at in your recovery process?’ Maybe provide some additional help, things of that nature.” 

This has helped staff reach clients who would otherwise not participate or try to float under the radar, he said.

Mark Matthews is another resident of ODAAT. He has been at the main shelter for 14 months and was there at the start of coronavirus lockdowns. He said that life has gotten much better since last spring. 

“We were locked down for quite a while, just stuck inside,” he said. 

Matthews, who is originally from South Philadelphia, takes time to see his girlfriend, but aside from that, ODAAT takes up most of his days. He works in the kitchen, serves lunch and dinner, takes head counts, and does basically anything else that is asked of him. 

Mark Matthews, a resident at ODAAT’s main shelter.

He said that when stimulus checks came around, it helped some of the clients leave ODAAT, but otherwise, the number of residents had remained about the same during the pandemic.

Adam Fostier has been a resident at the main shelter since the end of December.  

“[COVID] changed people’s lifestyle,” he said. “Things that were normal became, ‘No you can’t do this’ because COVID’s here.”

Fostier said the pandemic really changed his routine.

“A lot of what happened with me, because I am in the shelter system, is that I couldn’t go and do things normally how I used to,” he said. “Whether it was going into places, going for interviews, stuff like that.”

Fostier was not hoping to have a long stay at ODAAT. He’s eager to find housing of his own and continue work on his own recovery, but the pandemic has made it harder for him to find the programs and resources he needs to get back on his feet.

Adam Fostier, a resident at ODAAT’s main shelter.

“I’m trying to get housing,” he said. “But the fact is that nothing is open like it normally would be.”

Many people, especially those suffering from homelessness, are unable to get the types of social service that they need due to the various shutdowns being imposed, Fostier said.

Keeping up with recovery as well as trying to make ends meet is already a full-time job, and the pandemic simply added another layer of stressors and worries: financially, emotionally and mentally.

“It touched a lot of people because they couldn’t afford it at the time,” he said. 

The outside of ODAAT’s main homeless shelter, located on 25th Street and Lehigh Avenue.

ODAATs outreach teams, who were on the streets engaging people, have also been affected by coronavirus guidelines.

“March [2020] was a scary month for a lot of us trying to figure this thing out, learning about the disease,” Deans said. “But once we were able to reassess, we were able to put the operations in place so that we could continue to move forward.”

Over time, staff adjusted their outreach and intake procedures, such as using dividers in the vans they used to pick people up, equipping staff and clients with personal protective gear, and implementing regular temperature screenings so the outreach team could go back on the streets. 

ODAAT also began providing online resources, such as virtual meetings, but those came with their own complications. 

“A lot of our participants are extremely low socioeconomically,” Deans said. “So just the resources, having a cellphone or internet connection, is very minimal.” 

Many ODAAT residents are receiving COVID-19 vaccines, and Fostier was among one of the first. He said his experience was especially rough.

“Because I have other chronic things going on, I’m in recovery, it just made it hard,” he said. “The first shot didn’t do too much, but then I went and got the second and it was like a whole different thing, I got sick, I got the chills. The first shot lasted a day, the second one took four days and even after I still wasn’t feeling 100%.”

Though the pandemic has added stress, ODAAT staff remain focused on helping as many people as they can to get the recovery and housing resources they need, Suender said. 

“There’s certainly just another layer of pressure and uncertainty,” he said. “I think it has definitely affected people’s recovery process, but we’re doing everything we can to ensure we’re providing alternative options.” 

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