Six blocks south of City Hall, a cafe opens at 9:30 p.m. People waiting in line outside the gothic church file in with their duffel and trash bags. Some have suitcases on. They descend into the sparse church basement, where they sign in at the reception desk, greeting staff and claiming spots around the room. Men and women, mostly middle-aged, approach a long table where the “barista” fills their Styrofoam bowls and cups with pasta, soup, bread, salad and coffee.
No one pays. They sit in metal folding chairs at round tables, eating silently. When the lights go out, these 36 men and 14 women—who are spending the night at 315 South Homeless Cafe at the Broad Street Ministry—take places on the floor, in their chairs or on pews along the walls, sleeping amongst their things, or watching movies on a small TV.
Philadelphia spends millions to alleviate homelessness, which worsened after the financial crisis of 2008 set off a wave of mass foreclosures. The city uses most of its $98 million homeless housing budget to get people into permanent housing, leaving the chronically homeless few places to go. They’re a different category than those who’ve fallen on hard times. “This is more of a population that’s been doing this for long periods of time, and needs access to other resources to stabilize,” says café program coordinator Misty Sparks.
This year, the 315 South Homeless Cafe opened on Jan. 4 with $115,000 grant from the city, and will serve its last meal on March 31. It’s the only place in Center City where a homeless person can walk in—no questions asked—for food and rest. Run by the South Street-based nonprofit Bethesda Project, which serves the chronically homeless, the cafe uses a personal approach by listening to the guests, referring them to the resources they need when they ask, and giving them a communal space. “We deal with a mentally ill, chronically addicted or drunk population,” says Sparks, who has been working with the homeless for more than a decade. In bureaucratic parlance, it means the guests are “shelter resistant”: they’re unable to meet the city’s requirements to enter its emergency shelter system, which provide free but temporary beds. But the guests aren’t eager to enter those shelters anyway. The 315 South staff says the guests have encountered theft, aggression, violence, mental abuse and apathy from staffers. Some just don’t have the ID required to get into a city shelter.
Guests at 315 South do have to follow a few basic rules though: They have to be respectful of each other; they can have cigarettes; and they can be intoxicated, as long as they don’t bring drugs or alcohol inside.
Paul, a blue-eyed man with a faint scar on his cheek, was one of the “shelter resistant.” He was homeless before he got sober and started working at 315 South. “Shelters had rules,” he says, recalling the time he spent in and out of the city’s system. “It’s self-imposed incarceration. I couldn’t come in wasted. You got searched at the door. We had a certain time we could have a cigarette. They treat you like you’re in prison.
“You’re on the street,” he continues, declining to give his last name. “You have a chronic addiction. They tell you you can’t go in drunk or high. If I didn’t drink I would shake and go into seizures. They weren’t offering any substantial treatment options. I almost killed myself out there.”
Paul recalls when his life turned around: One day his buddy told him about free food at the Broad Street Ministry. He walked in and he said he felt the presence of God. Walking into the ministry got him into treatment, but shelters made him feel unsafe; people steal anything. He says older guests at 315 South feel intimidated and vulnerable at the shelters.
Sparks says Bethesda had some successes using a personal approach, but budget constraints are forcing the cafe to shut down, and she doesn’t know if it’ll open back up next winter.
Former Mayor John Street first steered Philadelphia toward using new approaches to solving homelessness. In 2005, the nonprofit Project H.O.M.E. opened the first cafe in Philly, taking in more than 100 people each night. The next year, the Bethesda Project came on board to open 315 South at the Broad Street Ministry.
On nights when wind-chill temperatures dip to 20 degrees (Code Blue), or when it’s snowing (Code Gray), the city declares a weather emergency. On those nights, 315 South can take in 75 people. There’s no weather emergency tonight, so the cafe can only take 50. Sparks shakes her head. Number 51 always gives her a hard time, she says. By city orders, once at capacity, they can’t let anyone else in.
“You get an old man in his 60s with crutches covered in snow, and you have to turn him away,” says a visibly emotional Nick Ison, a member of the four-person cafe staff.
There’s a need for cafes like 315 South, because for the homeless Center City is the best place to find food and make money panhandling. But despite the cafe’s advantages, “barista” Liam O’Donnell says it has serious limitations. “If this program is connected to the right services, it would be awesome—but we don’t have options. If we don’t have services, it’s just people sleeping on the floor—not much better than sleeping on the streets.”
Sparks is less reticent. “It should turn your stomach to see people put out their bedroll on the floor rather than go to a shelter and sleep on a bed.”
The city’s Ridge Avenue shelter—the emergency system’s biggest—is closing in December, putting more money into permanent housing. Sparks agrees that permanent housing is the way to go, but thinks keeping a sense of community and support is necessary to help the recovery process.
Even if her guests don’t get along, and even if they don’t like each other, they help each other, she says. Everywhere else, the homeless are treated as pariahs. “Everywhere you go, you’re unwelcome and unseen. Even after years, you can’t be used to that.”
At 6:30 a.m., the cafe closes. The lights come on and the staffers, who have been awake all night, goad their guests into rising. They serve more bad coffee, and everyone leaves—to parks, libraries or to seek services. A lot of them go underground for warmth in the subway until tonight, when the cafe will reopen.
Click here for a photo gallery of 315 South.