He was wrapped in plastic from head to toe. He had layer upon layer of plastic tied around each foot, tightly secured somehow, as though he was wearing spaceman boots. He blanketed himself in several huge sheets of plastic, pulled up over his head, and he held them in place with a hand under his chin.
He was the first homeless person I saw last month when I arrived at Philadelphia’s Suburban Station at 5:45am in the heart of the city’s downtown. We came to sell Girl Scout cookies in the station. And we undoubtedly were going home with quite an education in city life.
As we unloaded our cookie stock, a fight erupted nearby between several men. SEPTA workers and police descended immediately to break it up. A minute later I was greeted by Robert. He introduced himself, and at first I wasn’t sure if Robert was a homeless person or simply on his way to work at that hour. Robert said that someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the dry cleaning business around the corner last Friday, injuring the Asian couple who own it. Robert said the couple is not coming back.
From above us in a stairwell, a woman began screaming and cursing. It seemed as though she was arguing with someone, but we could not hear anyone respond to her. This went on for 20 minutes or longer before she became silent. But she erupted in a stream of profanities several more times throughout the day. At one point, the woman was carrying on an argument right behind us. It was then that I realized her adversary was invisible.
A police officer stopped by our cookie booth, and I asked him why the screaming woman hadn’t been arrested. He just chuckled and said, “You can’t lock up a crazy person.”
Plastic man milled around the loading dock area, while other folks wandered by to see what we were doing. We brought about 60 cases of cookies. That’s a veritable smorgasbord when you are used to fishing scraps out of trash cans. We built ourselves a fort with cookies and camp chairs. By 6am, we were smiling and greeting commuters with a chipper “Good Morning!” As the day wore on, there were a few homeless folks that approached us and asked for cookies. There were a few who lingered for a long time by our booth, just observing.
For two single moms from the suburbs and their 12 year old daughters, this was a whole new world. Witnessing this issue made selling cookies seem trivial. But, on the other hand, if a cookie helps to bring an important issue to a determined girl’s attention, you never know how that cookie might change someone’s future.
The Girl Scout program teaches girls to look for the root causes of problems in their communities and find ways to take action to address these issues. In Philadelphia’s Suburban Station, our girls came face to face with a serious community issue. And it’s overwhelming. Where could we possibly begin? Our girls are still learning how to address small problems in their own communities. For them, this could mean finding ways to teach their school mates about bullying or the harmful effects of smoking. Tackling homelessness is one issue they will need to grow into.
I wanted to learn more about homelessness in Philadelphia, so I took to the Internet and found an organization called Project HOME. Their mission is to help break the cycle of homelessness through street outreach, supportive housing, and other community development activities.
According to Projecthome.org, a May 2013 street census counted approximately 494 individuals living on the street in Philadelphia. It is difficult to calculate the exact number of homeless people living on the street, considering the number of individuals that live in obscure park areas, vehicles, or abandoned houses. Project HOME also estimates that, on any given night, about 6,000 people live in city-funded shelters or transitional housing. Many of these individuals face economic hardship, lack of education and jobs, or may be victims of racial or ethnic discrimination. But estimates run from between 34 to 53 percent of the homeless population suffers with addiction and mental illness. This has been exacerbated by the removal of institutional support for people with severe mental illness and lack of universal health care.
As I read more about Project HOME, I learned that this organization has a service center in Suburban Station. It’s called Hub of Hope, and it was shut down without warning in November of 2014. You can read the story of the Hub of Hope here. But I am happy to report that the Hub is once again open and assisting the homeless in Suburban Station. Next time we have the opportunity to sell cookies in Philadelphia, we will also take along some donations for the Hub of Hope.
There is one other fact I learned about Project HOME — eight of its top executives are women. I wonder, were they Girl Scouts?
© Vulnerable Path, 2015