At the corner of 41st and Walnut, you’ll find some student apartments and houses, the Homewood Suite hotel by Hilton and a middle-aged wheelchair bound veteran named Phil.
Day in and day out for the last six months, armed only with his wheelchair, a leather wallet, a pair of black Wayfarer-style sunglasses and his Bible, Phil sits on the corner watching people and cars pass.
He converses with the students and residents of the surrounding apartments and finally wheels himself back to the Safe Haven Homeless Shelter for veterans where he sleeps at night.
Growing up in the Belmont area of Brooklyn, Phil encountered a lot of adversity.
“I experienced a lot of depression due to my neglect, did drugs and got into altercations, but I don’t do those things anymore.”
He attributes this change to counseling and the Bible, given to him by his grandmother, which he has read cover to cover.
Though he has been in Philadelphia for less than a year, he has been homeless for nearly a decade. Phil can tell you which corners have people who are nice or who steal food. He can tell you the names of police officers that have helped him, and those who have treated him with suspicion, giving him citations he feels he didn’t deserve.
Phil is one of the 12,000 individuals that access emergency shelter per year in Philadelphia.
It is difficult to estimate how many people are living on the street but not accessing shelter at any point in time as many live in obscure, neglected places such as abandoned buildings, cars and bus stops.
The city’s estimate is around 650, adding up to about 5,500 truly homeless people per year, according to Project HOME. More alarmingly, according to Axis Philly, this number is triple the amount of people whose shelter needs went unmet three years ago.
Though the University doesn’t provide homeless outreach programs through Civic House or the Netter Center, in recent years Penn students have attempted to alleviate some of the dire needs of Philadelphia’s poorest residents through original initiatives.
In 2011, Penn students Patrick Gregorio and Brianna Fram founded the Penn chapter of the Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia, an initiative started by local college students to house men during winter months at the Arch Street United Methodist Church near City Hall. The housing unit is staffed by area students, who also sleep in the church overnight and prepare breakfast for the men in the morning.
2014 College graduate Taryn Williams became involved with SREHUP through a friend on the frisbee team.
“I had done a lot of volunteer work in poverty alleviation in high school,” she said, adding, “I knew the issue was more serious in Philadelphia [so] I wanted to do something here as well.”
Williams became involved in SREHUP after joining various other organizations in the area.
“SREHUP was the one where I felt like I, as an individual, was making the biggest impact,” she said.
More recently, Swipe Out Hunger — founded in the fall of 2014 by College sophomores Liza Lansing and Jessie Abrams — has tackled the convergent issue of hunger in West Philadelphia.
”Liza and I realized that plenty of students end the semester and year with excess unused meal swipes, and wanted to figure out a way in which we can allocate them to reduce waste and engage in bettering the larger West Philadelphia community,” said Abrams.
Penn Dining and Bon Appetit, in a partnership whose details took five months to work out, agreed to give $4.75 per swipe to Philabundance, the area’s leading hunger relief organization, capping student donations to two swipes. During its pilot semester this past spring, Swipe Out Hunger collected nearly 1,600 meal swipes, which will provide 14,000 meals to people in West Philadelphia.
“With the help of Dr. Harkavy, we found a way for Swipes at Penn to become a reality in a way that would benefit the local Philadelphia community of which Penn students are a part,” Lansing said.
In addition to the positive effects of their outreach efforts, Penn students have made a good impression on at least one visitor to campus.
“Penn students are very disciplined. I sometimes see them with their families. I wish them a nonviolent and stress-free life,” Phil said.
He added that his experience in Philly has been much better than in New Jersey, where he spent the last eight years: “I have always admired Philadelphia. I do love the city. It’s a blessed place.”
Despite his contentment with Philadelphia, there is something missing from Phil’s life even beyond a stable home and source of food. “I want to get married. I want to have kids.” he revealed over a rare shared meal at McDonald’s.
“I’m always up on 41st. I’ll be responsible, I’m all prepared. I’ll take her on a honeymoon, take her dining. Do you know how hard it is to be alone?”