Most days, as I leave the Philadelphia magazine offices, I see them. One sits perched on JFK Boulevard in front of Walgreens, occasionally muttering at unknown ghosts. Another sits near 18th and Market, clutching a kitten and begging for change. They are young and female, and increasingly, it seems, they are the face of Philadelphia’s homeless.
Demographic statistics on the homeless population are tough to come by, but the best guess of just how many women are on our streets comes from Philly’s 100,000 Homes Campaign, which estimated last year that females make up about 18 percent of the city’s street homeless. But since the state this summer cut General Assistance benefits for some 35,000 Philadelphians, the numbers will undoubtedly rise. “We expect to see more people going homeless and seeking shelter because of those cuts,” says Dainette Mintz, director of the Nutter administration’s Office of Supportive Housing.
Providing emergency funding to the disabled, addicts and victims of domestic abuse, the General Assistance benefits have historically helped low-income residents stay out of at-capacity shelters and off the street. They’ve been particularly important in Philadelphia (which has had more people receiving benefits than anywhere else in the state) and to abused women (domestic violence is one of the main reasons women end up homeless, with most homeless women having a history of abuse).
Unfortunately, the city is largely unprepared to handle a sharp uptick in women in need of help. “If every single homeless woman came to us tonight and said, ‘I want to come in,’ we literally would not have the space to put them,” says Laura Weinbaum, vice president of public affairs at Project H.O.M.E.
The cuts come as the city has actually been making progress on homelessness. Between 2011 and 2012, homeless rates decreased by two percent for the city overall. The Mayor’s 2008 plan to end homelessness has contributed to reducing our street-homeless-to-general-population ratio to the lowest of any reporting major city. It would seem, then, that the city is winning the battle. Or at least, it was.
This article first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Philadelphia magazine.