I just got home from the most amazing tour of center city Philadelphia that I have ever participated in. 21 of us met at St. John Chrysostom Orthodox Church’s parking lot. We walked over to the Love Park (JFK Plaza) where Elizabeth met us. There we gave away servings of spaghetti, peanuts, sandwiches and power packs to as many people who wanted them. Then we went underground for a block, in the subway concourse, to learn about some of the ways homeless people have survived through the years down there. Jolene, a counselor with Horizon House, shared how when she was new to the job, she had to spend many hours in the subway concourses just meeting people and observing them so she would recognize them if they should ever come through intake.
I recalled the occasions, years ago, when we had large enough crews and large donations of blankets and bag lunches, that we would go down into the concourse on 8th Street and walk to 18th Street giving everything away as we went. Fred told us about the hospitality of some of the subway and train drivers; and of homeless encampments that used to be three levels down. We came up and walked back to St. John Chrysostom Orthodox Church, where we had parked. On the way we learned about chain store corporations’ fears of sharing leftovers with homeless people. The Wawa went to the extreme measure of making sure any leftover sandwiches and donuts were in the bottom of a bag with used coffee grounds dumped on top, so they could not even be trash picked.
At the church, we refilled our bags and backpacks with more food. Michael shared bottles of cold water with any of the crew who wanted them. Jolene had to leave the tour to take a client to a diabetes class. We then proceeded to our usual serving spot across the street from the family court building. (That’s 1801 Vine St., Father Noah.) As people approached us, we gave away more sandwiches, peanuts, power packs and the rest of the spaghetti. We spent some time talking to some of the people in the park. We crossed the street and visited the spot where Bruce was killed last December. Fred and I pointed out the grates and grills that the city spent $80,000 to install on the Family Court, several years ago, to keep anyone from seeking shelter from the rain on their porch or windowsills. The Godshalls had to leave the tour at this point. It is really too bad, because they missed the awesomest parts. (I know awesomest is not a word, but those who know me know I don’t use awesome unless it is called for and try not to break grammar rules, unless the occasion truly demands it.)
I have to be careful here, because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s situation. We can’t have tourists checking it out willy nilly. We gave the current occupant of the newer encampment a donation. We visited two of Fred’s old encampments. They are located under bridges. We had to walk quite a distance and go the equivalent of two flights down and climb over discarded, rotting railroad ties, through lush, wild trees, shrubs and vines to get to Fred’s first shelter. He had built it out of discarded plywood and 2×4’s, with some fabric and a broken screen for the door. It is four feet wide, eight feet long and four feet high; just enough to crawl into to get some additional protection from the elements. While he was living in this box, he cleared off a platform that used to service trains, about a block away, along the same abandoned right of way. There he pitched two tents: one is the bedroom, complete with air mattress; the other is the bathroom complete with a walker toilet, hand washing basin and a large storage bin that serves for bathing. In between these tents is the living room, furnished with a scavenged couch, an Ikea chair and footstool, two circular, rattan chairs and end tables. There were several five gallon bottles of water. There is a round patio table and umbrella for the dining area. I pointed out to Fred that this place was larger than his apartment now, and had better cross breezes to boot. This gave him pause. On the way out, all but Ben and I climbed up a pile of rip-rap inside of an old, broad archway to visit what Fred calls the “bat cave”. There is a mattress and a chair in there.
As we walked back to our cars, we stopped in front of the Free Library for a group photo with the Phillie Phanatic. When we got back to the church parking lot, we stood in a circle. Each one shared something that impressed them about the tour. More posts will follow to share some of these.