In summer 2023, HAP conducted a survey among around 200 people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. Our goal was to better understand where they were being served or underserved by city policy and practice, and where their rights are being protected, or not, according to them. 

Some preliminary notes:

  • The following information was solicited over the months of July and August 2023.
  • Although it was conceived of, conducted by, and reviewed by HAP, namely former Advocacy Director Michael Taub and Patrick McNeil, the survey was informed by some of HAP’s strong and longstanding community partners, including Project HOME, Pathways to Housing, the Philadelphia Community Land Trust, and others.
  • HAP brought on an intern from Dartmouth University’s Center for Social Impact, who was instrumental in the collection of survey results; she was accompanied and supervised by a member of HAP at all times.
  • The survey consisted of two branches: one focused on the experience of people living outside, and the other focused on the experience of people living in the emergency shelters. A small number of participants (fewer than 10) completed both branches of the survey.
  • All participants were either currently homeless at the time of contact or reported being homeless within 3 years of the time of contact.
  • Although we recorded the first and last initials of participants to help prevent duplicate responses, we have not and will not share that information, or any otherwise identifying information.
  • All participants were compensated with a $10 gift card to Wawa. The survey generally took 10-15 minutes to complete.

When compared to numbers from the 2023 Point in Time Count (link to document here), our survey results were closely aligned demographically by race, age, and gender. Although our 193 participants only represent 4% of the 4,725 total people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia, our first branch of the survey, which focuses on the experiences of people living outside, may be considered statistically relevant; we spoke with 107 of the reportedly 706 people living outside, or 15%. (Although this is complicated. The PIT count is conducted in winter, and if it were conducted in the summer months, like our survey, the numbers would no doubt be higher. PIT count numbers are also considered low by most of the service providers we work with, some of whom put the number of people living outside in Philadelphia over 1,000 on any given night. The real number is impossible to know.)

We learned much during the course of this survey and in the months since, combing through the results and cross-referencing different responses. The results will inform our strategic decisions in years to come, both in terms of direct service and broad advocacy. Below are some of the key conclusions we drew from the survey, along with some context. At the bottom you’ll find a link to download our full survey results.   

An overwhelming majority of people living outside would come in if there were more safe haven-type beds.

Forms response chart. Question title: If you were offered a spot in a safe haven, would you come inside? (Like a shelter, but with fewer barriers and restrictions, more supports, and a route to permanent housing)
. Number of responses: 104 responses.

Many of the people we spoke with hadn’t heard of safe havens as distinct from shelters, so we explained that in Philadelphia, a safe haven is like a shelter, but generally has fewer barriers and restrictions, more supports, and a route to permanent housing.

We looked a little more closely at these results, by section of the city, and found that this number was even higher in Kensington (87%), contrary to stigma about what those suffering from opioid addiction want. The vast majority want to come inside. Conversely, Center City had the lowest percentage of people surveyed who would come into a safe haven (72%); of all the sections of the city, those living outside in or around Center City reported the lowest substance use to us (fewer than half of all respondents).

People are being left outside for years, especially the elderly.

Forms response chart. Question title: How long have you been living outside?
. Number of responses: 107 responses.

Many housing programs are reserved for people the city terms “chronically homeless,” meaning they have been homeless for a year or more. How well homeless services are able to actually track this is another story: typically the city references the number of times an outreach team documents contact with a person. You need a certain number of contacts within a certain timeframe to qualify. In any case, these results suggest people are being missed. Even more worrisome is the age demographics within this group of chronically homeless: almost half of all those who reported living outside for over a year were over the age of 50.

And of the eight people who took our living outside survey and were over the age of 66, 100% reported living outside for over a year. Every single one qualified as chronically homeless, and yet they are being left outside. Are they being missed? Five of them, over half, were right in center city. Compare this with the six elderly people we spoke with in the shelters, none of whom reported being there for over a year.

There is effectively no right to property for people living outside in Philadelphia. 

Forms response chart. Question title: At any time you were asked to move, has any of your personal property gotten lost?. Number of responses: 79 responses.

For years, it has been city policy to offer storage for personal belongings if a person can’t take them with them during an encampment enclosure, but our survey indicated that this wasn’t happening: 93% of respondents who have been forced to move by city officials reported that there was no offer made to store any property they couldn’t take with them at the time.

It’s worth noting that, in our experience outside of the scope of this survey, we have heard of the city offering to store personal property at larger, more publicized encampment closings. It’s the smaller, everyday sweeps where people’s property is routinely being lost or thrown out.

OHS defines an encampment as one or more people living outside.

Encampment sweeps are setting people back in their homelessness.

Forms response chart. Question title: Have you lost any of the following items during or following an encampment closing?. Number of responses: 60 responses.

Identity documents were named by over 70% of those who have had personal property lost or thrown out due to being moved by city officials. At HAP, we spend a lot of resources helping people secure birth certificates and IDs, since those are requirements for housing and employment opportunities. The fact that a city-sanctioned encampment closing can lead to the destruction or misplacement of these documents, and raise more barriers to housing or employment, effectively keeping people on the streets longer, feels counterintuitive to the city’s stated values and goals.

There is no single reason people don’t come into shelter.

Forms response chart. Question title: What are some of the reasons you don't come into shelter?
. Number of responses: 101 responses.

Although no reason resonated among a majority of respondents, the most often-cited were concerns about safety (44%) and theft (37%). It may be notable that a slight majority of people we surveyed who were living in shelter reported feeling safe. (Of that same pool, the most-cited cause for concern was theft.)

Concerns about medical issues or accommodations were reported by only around 10% of the people we spoke with, as were those related to being separated from a pet or personal property. The third most reported reason came down to capacity: 34% of respondents said the reason they didn’t come inside off the streets was that there were simply no available beds in the shelters.

The below points are drawn from the second branch of the survey, which was conducted among people living in emergency shelters. The Office of Homeless Services and various shelter provider agencies did not sanction this effort; all surveys were conducted outside, off of shelter premises. HAP made no effort to track which shelter participants were talking about. We hope they receive all of these findings in a spirit of collaboration, improvement, and alliance.

There are not enough shelter beds in Philadelphia.

Forms response chart. Question title: When you tried to access shelter, was there a bed available for you right away?
. Number of responses: 89 responses.

Only 45% of respondents reported being given a bed on their first time coming in for shelter; the rest were either turned away or offered an overnight placement, in which case they needed to come back every day until a permanent bed opened up. For many people, this ended up being a long, frustrating process: over half of them had to keep coming back for over a week before a bed opened up; a quarter of them were made to wait for over a month. This is no surprise to us, and OHS surely has more comprehensive data on this point.

Most people in the shelters are there for less than 6 months. 

Forms response chart. Question title: How long have you been at the shelter you are staying at, or if you used to live in the shelter, how long was your longest stay?
. Number of responses: 90 responses.

This is another point on which OHS would be able to paint a fuller, more accurate picture. And although we might be tempted to view this as a success of the system (people are moving on after short stints of homelessness, isn’t that a good thing?), we have no way of knowing what percentage of those moving on are moving on into stable versus unstable housing situations, or the street, or incarceration, or how many of those who move on will be back within a given amount of time. Again, OHS could probably answer these questions. 

What we do know, though, can make us a better service provider. We have a 6 month window, or shorter, to reach the majority of people in the emergency housing system; the sooner we can begin a given legal effort with them, the more likely we’ll be able to see it to conclusion while they are still in place and in need. We’ll continue to work with OHS on reaching people as close to admission to shelter as possible. 

9% of the people we spoke with reported being in shelter for over a year. 

Some level of support is reliably being made available to long term shelter residents.

Forms response chart. Question title: Which of the following services or resources have been made available to you at the shelter where you're staying? Check all that apply.
. Number of responses: 87 responses.

Per OHS policy, everyone with a long-term bed in shelter (or Period of Stay, (POS)) should receive some level of social support, and this seemed to bear out in our survey: the percentage of respondents who were living in shelter on a POS correlated almost exactly with those who reported receiving case management. This is no real surprise, and what comes of those case management services is another matter, but we were encouraged to see the correlation nonetheless. 

Other supports, like those pertaining to housing, employment, and mental health treatment, were far less reported as being offered, but it’s worth noting that these all fall under the umbrella of what case management should include, more or less, and it’s likely that some people assumed we meant being offered by additional social services providers.

People were mixed on feelings of safety in the shelter, though women generally feel less safe than men.

Forms response chart. Question title: Do you feel safe in the shelter?
. Number of responses: 91 responses.

We took a closer look at these results and found that women felt less safe than men, with 28% of women reporting they don’t feel safe in their shelter, compared with 12% of men. Of the two repondents who were either trans or nonbinary, neither reported feeling safe. And although slightly over half of all respondents reported feeling safe in shelter, for women that number was around 40%. HAP made no effort to define the meaning of “safe” in this question.

The most commonly cited concern was theft, reported by a little more than half of all shelter-based respondents. It’s not an easy issue to fix, since most shelters already provide lockers for residents. No other concern resonated among a majority of shelter residents; the least-most reported concerns, at least among those we prompted people with, were related to medication management and jeopardizing their recovery, with less than a tenth of participants identifying a concern with either. 

Most people don’t know how to file complaints with the Office of Homeless Services.

Forms response chart. Question title: Are you aware OHS operates a shelter comment line that you can call with 'questions, suggestions, concerns, complaints, or praise?'
. Number of responses: 94 responses.

OHS offers a comment line for people to call with “questions, suggestions, concerns, complaints, or praise,” but over 70% of the people we spoke with never heard of it. Shelter providers are instructed to make this number available to shelter residents upon intake, so this was surprising; shelters also purportedly post this number around the buildings for residents to see, but as we were not permitted inside, there was no way for us to validate this. 

The actual effectiveness of the comment line is another issue altogether, and unfortunately we only met four people who had called it, so can’t comment on this, but anecdotally we at HAP have heard stories of calls going to a voice mailbox and very rarely being returned.

There is an overwhelming preference for housing vouchers over other permanent supportive housing programs.

Forms response chart. Question title: Please rank your preference for housing. Number of responses: .

This was not necessarily surprising, but worth emphasizing. For the purposes of this question, we defined permanent supportive housing as “a room or apartment in a building with in-house supports and restrictions.”

Regarding where people don’t want to live: most people identified living outside to be less desirable than living in shelter, even though we talked to more people who were living outside. This echoes what has already been concluded above: there is not enough emergency housing in Philadelphia. People want to come inside.

Again, these are only a few takeaways we chose to highlight, and far from representative of our survey as a whole. Please click on the link below to download a PDF those results, and feel free to be in touch with us with conclusions of your own. Patrick McNeil, who helped oversee this effort, can be reached at [email protected].

Many thanks to all our partners who collaborated on this effort, to the Office of Homeless Services for your tireless and often thankless efforts, and most importantly to all those people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia who made their voices heard here.

Click here to dowload the full HAP 2023 Homeless Rights Survey results.

This report is for general informational purposes and is not intended to provide legal or other profession advice to any individual or entity. HAP makes no claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the contents of this report.

© 2024 Homeless Advocacy Project