A desperate need for change: struggling with homelessness

By Jamie Hufnagle
April 3, 2008

Jonathan Rea/graphic design/Harvey Finkle/Project Home

Hyacinth King became homeless after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. King left the home she shared with her parents after the voices in her head told her that her parents were going to harm her.

Before finding a life on the streets, King worked for her parents who were very successful owning a Thrift Way Supermarket. King went to college for business, but encountered problems with her mental illness, which affected her studies.

“Getting my degree was a big struggle since my symptoms appeared during my junior year,” King said.

Because resources were sparse, King had to compete with the people she referred to as friends during the day for the shelter she needed at night.

“I lived in my car until it died,” King said. “Then I got a big cardboard box from a store and made it my home during the night, but I had to be careful that another homeless person wouldn’t take it.”

Center City’s street population, 85 percent of whom are mentally ill or addicted or both, is the highest in 10 years, according to an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Philadelphia’s homeless system has grown to a point that leaves many shelters filled to the capacity and many people still left on the streets.

According to an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, homeless experts say the numbers will keep increasing unless the city gets to the root of the problem, which is currently a severe shortage of supportive housing for the mentally ill.

“I lived in my car for about a year, turning on the heat in the winter and turning on the air in the summer,” King said. “When my car broke down and I took to the cardboard, I lived on the streets for three years.”

King was transferred from a mental health facility to a drug rehabilitation site after being dual -ly diagnosed with a drug problem and a mental health problem.

King found herself at Project H.O.M.E. (Housing, Opportunities for Employment, Medical Care, Education) in Philadelphia, Pa. after her case manager at the drug rehab facility recognized that she needed more treatment.

Project H.O.M.E. is a nonprofit organization that empowers people to break the cycle of homelessness, address the structural causes of poverty and attain their fullest potential as members of society.

The program is designed to specifically overcome chronic homelessness and deals with the complex issues of people with special needs such as mental illness and addiction. The program consists of street outreach, a range of supportive housing from entry-level to permanent housing and comprehensive services, including health care, education and employment, according to projecthome.org.

Laura I. Weinbaum is the director of public policy at Project H.O.M.E and works to educate the public about homelessness. Weinbaum stressed the difference between the 1970s and the present.

“What is wrong with this picture and what has not changed?” Weinbaum said. “To me it’s this question of the dissection between housing costs and benefits or minimum wage.”

According to Weinbaum, there needs to be a big change in the system in order to come up with permanent solutions.

“We live in America, the richest country in the world. Nobody should be living on the street,” Weinbaum said.

“There is real leadership needed right now. The emphasis needs to shift to what we call the back door from homelessness, the way out of homelessness, to permanent housing in a lot of different forms.”

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter addressed the homelessness situation before stepping into office, but has not yet laid out a specific plan on his intent to address it.

“There is going to have to be a restructuring away from this emergency shelter situation and maybe converting some of those resources to the longer term which is more cost effective,” Weinbaum said.

According to King, the responsibility for change is something that Nutter should follow through with.

“He said he wouldn’t put his dog in our shelters. We need to hold the mayor accountable to his promises before he was elected,” King said.

King now works 40 hours a week at Project H.O.M.E. and volunteers in the advocacy department. King went to school for computer repair and passed the certification test. She uses her own experiences to reach out to the homeless.

“Now that I am working and volunteering and doing whatever anyone needs, I don’t feel sorry for myself anymore,” King said. “I have my self esteem and pride back.”

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Jamie Hufnagle

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