“From the perspective of the guests at the shelter, we are people who aren’t bogged down by the system, and are able to be more upbeat while offering a listening ear," says Tess Kerins (C’17). "Penn students provide a sort of friendship for the guests.” It's the ability to develop human relationships, Tess says, that becomes so essential when working with the homeless.
As Penn Student Director of Penn's chapter of the Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP), Tess helps coordinate volunteers to work at a shelter downtown. The shelter, located in the basement of Arch Street United Methodist Church, and run through Project HOME, provides a safe haven, and a warm meal for people experiencing homelessness across Philadelphia. SREHUP is a non–profit run out of Villanova with chapters at Drexel, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr and Penn.
“The goal through Project HOME is to transfer into permanent housing. So Project Home finds this for people and helps them with the job search,” says Tess. Where Project HOME facilitates the intake of guests at the shelter, SREHUP organizes volunteers. These volunteer experiences and the connections students make with guests hugely impact many students in reshaping their world views.
Tess’s involvement with SREHUP, for example, has truly impacted how she conceptualizes poverty in the United States and in Philadelphia, especially.
“I became really good friends with one of the residents who was about my age. Just hearing his story made me realize that we have this conception of poverty as though it's your fault, and that you should pull yourself up by the bootstraps, and not be lazy. In reality there are so many barriers, and a lack of proper support and guidance.” Tess says while shaking her head slowly.
Urooj Khalid (C'17) points out just how imprecise the common conceptions around homelessness and poverty are. “What surprised me was that sometimes guests don't want to be placed in a permanent home, and that others don't feel safe in a shelter. It adds another dimension to the problem of homelessness, because you often hear people argue or say 'Well why doesn't this person just live in a shelter?' or 'Shelters are a way for them to get off the streets so why don't they use that?'" Volunteering has complicated how Urooj looks at these issues “You come to realize how multifaceted the struggles of an individual can be, and how the solutions we think should work need drastic improvements if we really want to combat homelessness in Philly.”
When asked to expand, both Urooj and Tess describe the complexity of the situation. In order to be a part of SREHUP one needs to be drug and alcohol free, and committed to finding a permanent home and job. There is also a requirement that guests stay in a public shelter first before they can transfer to the United Methodist Church, which only has capacity for 30 people. According to Tess, however, it may be that people don't want to go through the process of first being at a pubic shelter due to their high occupancy. Along with this come issues of theft, hostility and uncomfortable sleeping conditions.
“In some people’s opinion, if you aren’t dying of cold it’s much better to sleep in Suburban Station, or an abandoned home,“ says Tess. While it's impossible to completely apprehend the situations of the residents SREHUP serves without their own words, it's clear that pulling oneself up by the "bootstraps" entails a great deal more of a complex human element than the metaphor itself suggests, even getting help is difficult
For volunteers, working with SREHUP can be emotionally draining, such a systemic problem can't be tackled overnight. Sometimes, as Urooj puts it, “Change is a very slow process that has outcomes that aren’t easy to see on a day to day basis. I’ve learned that sometimes I have to change the part of me that wants immediate results to a problem.” The work won't always be perfect, as Urooj says, "I've also learn to come to terms with the fact that just because I'm going in with the intention to help, doesn't mean that I'll always be successful."
However, echoing Tess, personal relationships have been a hugely important part of Urooj's experience with SREHUP, "I feel that I've definitely come to understand that the relationships I form with the guests are not only meaningful, but so much more valuable than I could have anticipated." Even when "disillusioned by the idea that me serving coffee in the morning or making toast was actually making a difference," seeing a guest he had become close with get placed in permanent housing made him realize that he was "part of this guest's happiness" in however small a way, that personal connection and what it taught him shining through.
SREHUP volunteer Riley Morrison (C 20’) agrees that it is the small things that add up to make a difference. “Sometimes we have families come in and volunteer, and they are just wonderful to have. It’s also really cool when we have whole classes come in, and the kids are able to have dialogues and talk about problems with urban living in America.” Riley’s face lights up as he continues. “These kids are remarkably kind, nice and open.” Where negative images of the homeless often dominate, interpersonal connections are a bright spot in what they can teach.
Despite the obvious challenges and complexities of the work, Claudelle Edwards, a member of the security staff for the shelter, offers his optimistic perspective. “I would just say that the program works. I sometimes see some of the guests on the street after they have found themselves a safe haven or apartment; they come up to me and thank me for the discipline and structure provided by SREHUP. It really is such a positive program." The growth and experience goes both ways. "The volunteers, they’re like sponges. They soak it all up."