A "homeless cafe" fills a hole in a broken system.
About 9 p.m. on Sunday, a line forms on the sidewalk at Eighth and Arch streets. People are waiting to get inside a makeshift "cafe," a space leased by the city to give homeless people a safe, warm place to get through the night. Capacity in the former copy center is 50 and 75 on "Code Blue" nights. Tonight it'll hit capacity, as it has every night since opening in August.
The cafes don't have beds. Despite running on an honor system of no drugs, alcohol, weapons or violence, the regulars who stay here overnight say it's the safest and least degrading of their limited options.
When people are finally let in around 10, there are clusters of convivial commotion: fist-bumps and back pats, jokes about the Eagles blowing the playoffs and holiday hugs.
A woman sits at a table in front of me. She's clearly not feeling well. She's holding her face in her hands and refusing the soup and bread her friends put in front of her.
"There's love and care here," says her friend Irwin, a handsome guy in a white sweatsuit and stylish glasses. Later on he tells me he just got housing but came here to check on "all his little friends."
He keeps coaxing his friend to eat.
"I fight. I'm a fighter," she retorts, waving him off. Her face is pale and lined with deep grooves, her feet stuffed into worn sheepskin boots.
Misty Sparks is in charge here. A Bethesda Project employee for the last seven years, she's run versions of this cafe at different spots around the city for the last three years.
Sparks, a petite woman in a skullcap, '90s-style JNCO jeans and wrists wrapped in black jelly bracelets, talks about why some homeless people refuse to enter shelters: sometimes they get beat up, or their things get stolen. It's especially difficult for people with mental illnesses to navigate the shelter system. At this cafe, unlike a shelter, you don't have to show a photo ID or undergo an elaborate intake screening.
People here call Sparks a one-woman army battling corruption. Danny, who landed on the street after a car accident put him out of work, says, "You can always come talk to her. Misty, she's one of us."
Danny wanted to stay in the cafe last night, but there was no room for his wife, Valerie. So the couple ended up sleeping in front of the African-American Museum down the street.
Now Danny brings up Housing First, a progressive rapid-rehousing program whose strategy is to secure affordable housing first then focus on social services. Danny says a more permanent home would make it much easier for him to get back on track.
"You can put suits in the closet, you can market yourself. [But if] you get caught in their level," he says, gesturing around as we sit on the floor, "it's harder. It's more of an animal state. It's savage."
"Joe" is a homeless man who works nine shifts a week and earns $18,000 a year. He doesn't want to say where he works because his employer doesn't know he's homeless and he's scared of discrimination. He calls the shelter system a scam.
"We're a commodity to society," says Joe, who hangs at the cafe on nights he has to be at work early because it's close to the train. When he has the money, he pays for a hotel. "Everyone just makes money off me. We may as well be on the stock market."
Though he met a few nice cops while living on the street, he's says it's rare to have a positive interaction with authorities while homeless. He says he's seen SEPTA cops harass and beat up homeless friends. He names a hospital that drops discharged homeless patients off in LOVE Park. Hate crimes targeting the homeless are on the rise. At Homeless Memorial Day a few weeks ago, 85 people were remembered.
Still, Joe would rather jigsaw between the cafe, hotels and the sidewalk than go to a shelter. He says they're humiliating and filthy.