Families make up what Rachel Falkove and Bob Byrne call the invisible homeless, but they said those families are very visible to a coalition of churches that have joined to provide them shelter.
“They’re no different than any other family … living from paycheck to paycheck,” said Falkove. “They might be our next-door neighbors … They’re just people, people who are not really making a living wage or a wage that keeps pace with the cost of rents or mortgages.”
And that’s where the Northeast Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network comes in.
“We respond to families in need,” said Falkove, executive director of the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network.
Families are put up for a month in one of several participating churches, all but one in Northeast Philly, said Byrne, coordinator of the Northeast network. Then, if those families still have not found a place to stay, he said, they move to the next church that can accommodate them. This continues as volunteers try to help the families find temporary or permanent housing, Falkove said.
The churches that provide shelter to homeless families are All Saints Episcopal Church, 9601 Frankford Ave.; Faith Lutheran, 4150 Woodhaven Road; Fox Chase United Methodist Church, 201 Loney St.; Frankford Memorial United Methodist Church, 1300 Dyre St.; Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, 900 E. Howell St; Oak Lane Presbyterian Church, 6637 11th St.; Rhawnhurst Presbyterian Church, 7701 Loretto Ave.; and St. David’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 9169 Academy Road.
The network has been in existence for 22 years in the city’s Northwest sections, Byrne said, but the Northeast Philadelphia offshot began in August 2012.
Planning for a Northeast network began about three years ago, Falkove said. People from the Northeast were calling for help, but they wanted to stay in the Northeast, she said.
She cited a 2011 Philadelphia Inquirer article that said there was a 110-percent increase in poverty in Lower Northeast ZIP codes, and that 99 Northeast families were on a waiting list to get into city shelters.
The first church to get involved was Faith Lutheran on Woodhaven Road, Falkove said.
“This is a very enthusiastic congregation,” she said, but it wasn’t easy to get other churches involved. The question was, she said, “You’re in the Far Northeast. Why do you want to do that?”
Because it works well, said Faith Lutheran’s pastor, the Rev. Owen Griffiths.
“In August of 2012, Faith Lutheran housed the first family in the Northeast system in our church basement,” the pastor said in an email to the Northeast Times. “It was a great experience (the family is now in permanent housing). In March, three families will be staying at All Saints Episcopal Church on Frankford Avenue.”
The idea is to help families who are struggling with their mortgages or behind on rent and have no place to go, said Griffiths. “Rather than see the families split up into the shelter system, IHN houses them in neighborhood churches and synagogues. Congregational members and other volunteers see that the guests are fed and cared for. Kids go to school during the day and mom and dad look for a place to stay, take classes in money management, or look for work through the resources at IHN’s day center.”
So far, the Northeast network has helped 10 families, Byrne said.
There are services for Philadelphia’s homeless, Falkove said, and they include help from the city, Catholic Social Services and other agencies. But, she added, there are no shelters in the Northeast.
“I wish there were more resources available to families,” she said.
“We typically have three families at a time being hosted,” Byrne said. Those families are guided to other resources. The wait for city housing is about seven to eight months, he said.
“This gives us time to work with our families … providing budgeting help, restoring their credit, providing family counseling to keep families from going through the same [problems] in the future.”
Families are the fastest-growing segment of the country’s homeless population, making up 40 percent. Every year, Falkove said, one out of 50 American children experiences homelessness.
When families first make contact with the network, Falkove said, they participate in a 10- to 20-minute phone interview. “We ask questions to get at the roots of their problems,” she said. “We want to know if they’re in danger. Do they need placement immediately?”
There is a thorough screening, Byrne said. The program isn’t for everyone, he said. Families are invited to talk to network volunteers so the program is explained to them.
“They have to be able to move once a month,” Byrne said. They move to another congregation and then move again.
The network tries to keep children in the schools they had been attending and provides transportation to public transit, Falkove said.
“A family needs to be able to take advantage of resources our volunteers bring … they need to be open,” Byrne said. “They might need material things … We can help with material things … We get lots of donations.”
Volunteers and donations don’t come from only the host congregations. Several other churches provide support and volunteers: Bethel — the Church at Franklin Mills, Byberry Friends Meeting, Crescentville United Methodist Church, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, St. Luke’s United Church of Christ, St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic Church, Tabor Lutheran Church, United Methodist Church of the Good Shepherd and the United Methodist Church of the Redeemer.
The network tries to find housing that a family making a $20,000 income can afford, Byrne and Falkove said. “We need to find landlords who are willing to work with us. … The families pay their share, we put in a subsidy and the landlords cut the rent,” she said.
Right now, she said, there are no such landlords in the Northeast. ••
Fill the plate
Guests at the Northeast Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network’s “Empty Plate Dinner” on April 5 will take home handcrafted plates designed by local artists and students, but they’ll be able to fill some plates at the all-you-can-eat fundraiser at St. Dominic parish’s Marian Hall.
Date: 5 to 9 p.m., Saturday, April 5
Address: 8532 Frankford Ave.
Admission: $20, includes beer, wine and soda. To purchase tickets, visit www.philashelter.org
Freebie: Each handicrafted empty plate is a reminder that every night in Philadelphia 1,000 children go without a meal or a place to call “home.”
Contact the Northeast Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network at 215-247-4663, ext. 137.