A city spokesman said there was little wiggle room when all 1,500 beds in family shelters are filled, as they often are at this time every summer.
Invariably in mid- to late August, homeless women and their children who have been living in the houses of friends or relatives - or in some cases on the street - seek spots in the 11 city shelters that accommodate families so the children can have a stable place while they attend school, experts on homelessness say.
"This is the fourth or fifth year in a row the system has been flooded with moms and kids in August," said Marsha Cohen, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project, which provides legal aid for the homeless. "What we have is families sleeping in parks or in their cars tonight."
Cohen said that in 2011, her organization threatened the city with litigation, "then the mayor came up with 75 extra beds in the summer," she said.
A city spokesman said Mayor Nutter is hampered by tight budgets but has great empathy for these women and children.
"Not being able to live in a place you call home is tragic," said Mark McDonald, Nutter's spokesman. "This mayor is deeply concerned about that. But there's capacity for just so many beds."
That did little to mollify Sabrina Colon, 23, of Northeast Philadelphia.
"I'm jumping from house to house," said Colon, the mother of three children ages 5 and under, and a laid-off School District of Philadelphia teaching assistant.
She said she had applied for shelter Tuesday and Wednesday, to no avail. "I'm trying to get my oldest, Nazem, into school," she said, "but now I can't."
As the evening wore on, a caterer who had heard of the demonstration stopped by with boxed lunches for the group, which numbered about 20.
The protest was organized by Cheri Honkala, director of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign.
"We need to get women and children living someplace other than the pavement," she said, adding that some women were homeless because they were fleeing domestic violence, while others were escaping situations in which a relative was abusing drugs and alcohol.
Keeping tabs on the protest, Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME said the summer shelter problem was "real and devastating."
While she is aware the city is financially strapped, she said: "I can't imagine that when it comes to mothers and kids, the city couldn't be a little more resourceful."
Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or firstname.lastname@example.org.