Getting homeless people in from the cold

Encouraging a man under I-95 to go with them are (from left) Sam Santiago of Project H.O.M.E., David Holloman of the city Behavioral Health Department, and Jessica Perez of H.O.P.E.
Encouraging a man under I-95 to go with them are (from left) Sam Santiago of Project H.O.M.E., David Holloman of the city Behavioral Health Department, and Jessica Perez of H.O.P.E. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff)
Posted: January 25, 2013

Sam did not die Wednesday night.

Despite the cold and the untold ounces of Hurricane Malt Liquor he drank; despite shivering uncontrollably in his bed of ragged blankets beneath I-95 in South Philadelphia - Sam survived.

That's because a team from Project H.O.M.E. and the city's Department of Behavioral Health cajoled and begged the homeless 52-year-old native of Ho Chi Minh City to let them take him to the emergency room at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in the midst of a code-blue alert under a frigid moon.

"Sam, you won't make it tonight, man," said David Holloman, coordinator for homeless services for the department. "You're drinking too much of that firewater."

Sam was docile and apparently confused as he was seated on a plastic mat within the Project's gray Dodge Durango by Project H.O.M.E. outreach worker Sam Santiago.

A former restaurant worker who suffered a chest injury, then somehow had his life derailed, the homeless Sam was one of several people brought in from the cold of a code-blue alert Wednesday.

The alert, aimed at moving homeless people into shelters, was first declared at 6 p.m. Sunday because of the cold, said Carol Thomas, director of outreach for Project H.O.M.E., a nonprofit that provides housing and services to chronically homeless men and women in Philadelphia.

In the city, the alert kicks in when the wind chill is 20 degrees and below in clear weather, or 32 degrees and below in precipitation, according to Marcella Maguire, director of the Department of Behavioral Health Homeless Services.

When Sam was collected, the temperature was 23, with the wind chill at 16.

The department funds Project H.O.M.E. outreach services. The project in turn coordinates five agencies monitoring and helping the homeless.

Since the cold snap froze Philadelphia, the number of calls to a hotline from concerned citizens and police who spot homeless people has gone up 20 percent, Maguire said.

Along with the cold, Maguire worries that the approximately 430 homeless people living on the streets are getting older.

"Their average age is 51, and they're coming in with multiple medical conditions," Maguire said.

The vast majority of the city's nearly 3,000 homeless people live in shelters, Maguire added.

But it's the people on the street who concern Santiago, an former Philadelphia police officer who drives the Project H.O.M.E. van. He knows Sam and many other people living out in the cold.

"Our job is to establish relationships and get to know their issues," said Santiago, 51, a fit, bespectacled man.

Santiago said he loves dealing with the constant flow of people on the street, 60 percent of whom suffer from mental illness, according to Maguire. But Santiago has deeper motivations as well.

"To me, the job is personal," he said. "My dad died of alcoholism. My son is schizophrenic. Another son is into drugs and alcohol. Somebody has to be the voice of those who can't help themselves."

At times during a code-blue alert, Santiago and his colleagues run into a homeless person who doesn't want to get off the street. In some cases, outreach workers can contact officials with the Department of Mental Health from the street and get the authority to involuntarily commit the person.

As the sun was setting Wednesday, Santiago ran into two homeless people he knew amid the rocks and broken glass under I-95, near Sam's bed.

One, Danny, 53, recently released from prison for burglary, was panhandling in the icy air. As agitated as Sam was quiet, Danny told Santiago that he would not be getting into his van.

"I won't go anywhere without my girl," he yelled, saying that he would sleep in a tent near South Front Street with his girlfriend Wednesday.

Santiago figured Danny could survive the night and didn't press the issue.

"Sam was a chronic alcoholic and had to come with us," Santiago said, lighting a cigar as he drove to persuade other homeless people to get to a shelter. "You have to know when not to take no for an answer.

"I think we saved his life tonight."

Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or

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