Braving the cold to bring warmth

Posted: January 31, 2014

THE CITY'S homeless-outreach organizations have a secret weapon in Sean Rafferty, particularly when it comes to surveying the individual men and women who camp out on Philadelphia's streets, transit concourses and other public spaces.

It's not often, after all, that the workers completing those surveys can swap stories about what it's like to have no place to go home.

"The best way to address the homeless problem is through people who know where they're coming from," said Rafferty, who spent 10 years living on the streets of Philadelphia.

"I hope the people we meet tonight take it seriously, because it really does help."

That's why Rafferty, who'll turn 50 in a few weeks, joined more than 300 volunteers from Project HOME, the city's Office of Supportive Housing, Veterans Affairs and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development early yesterday to pound the pavement in search of the city's homeless.

From a headquarters at the Broad Street Ministry, on Broad near Pine, the 98 teams of volunteers from Philly COUNTS (Coordinated Outreach for Unsheltered Needs Tally and Survey) embarked on their annual survey in the wee hours, braving the bitter cold and wind.

The program is mandatory - every homeless-outreach organization that receives federal funding is required to come up with a concrete number of homeless people in its service area.

What isn't mandatory, however, is the manner in which that number is reached.

"We could just have 50 people with clipboards walk randomly down streets doing a spot-check," said Laura Weinbaum, the vice president for public affairs and strategic initiatives for Project HOME. "This is the first time we're doing something on this scale at this time of the year."

Volunteers bundled up to brave the biting temperature - 18 degrees in Center City after midnight yesterday - carrying nothing other than surveys and their goodwill.

Any homeless person encountered is asked to complete the survey. Some refuse outright, but others provide answers to basic questions about their age, ethnicity and how long they've been homeless.

"This isn't about workers going out and trying to bring people in," said Dainette Mintz, the director of the city's Office of Supportive Housing. "It's more to get a sense of the numbers - the reality is that you can't advocate for funding you need if you don't know what that need is.

"The survey helps document that need."

Safety isn't usually an issue, Mintz said, but one major obstacle is actually getting homeless people to respond.

That's where Rafferty comes in.

Rafferty grew up about 25 miles from Philly in Paoli, Chester County. He served nearly five years in the Coast Guard, and then fell on some tough times.

For a decade, he lived in front of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on the Ben Franklin Parkway, sleeping on a park bench and getting free meals from the churches that served the homeless.

"It's good to be homeless in Philadelphia," he said. "Between all the churches and organizations, you could eat 20 times a day."

Rafferty said he met countless homeless people who came to the city because of that reputation.

"People are nice here, not like in other cities," he said. "You don't get yelled at or hear 'Go get a job.' People seem like they want to help."

But the reality is, according to Rafferty, that free food and kind words are only a Band-Aid solution to what he calls an "addiction."

"Being homeless has a kind of appeal, it's strange to say," he said. "You have no bills, no phone, no real responsibilities."

He himself used to rebuke the COUNTS volunteers when he saw them; he thought they were "invasive."

Then, after about six years of living without a home, he wound up in the city's VA Medical Center after hurting himself. Suddenly, things became clearer for him.

He got a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs as a peer specialist, and slowly worked toward "making things better" for himself. Now, he lives in an apartment on Baltimore Avenue near Clark Park in West Philly, and spends his days reaching out to the people he used to see on the streets.

"It's all about your approach, how you talk with them," he said. "You can't bother them or tell them what they need to do."

Rafferty spent the survey period yesterday in Suburban Station, canvassing the concourse with a few of his fellow volunteers.

He would quietly approach any homeless person he saw and engage them softly, asking them how they were and getting to know them before delving into the survey's questions.

It worked - one man, who gave his name as "Stewert," was later taken to a shelter by the volunteers.

Stewert was one of 173 homeless people surveyed, according to Weinbaum.

"This was a total success," she said. "For some, it won't stick, but for others, this will be first step in a journey for something better."

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