Shelter From the Storm
Winds of near 80 miles per hour. Battering rains. Trees felled. Power lines down. Overflowing rivers and flooded streets.
Mother Nature was in a feisty mood early this week, as Hurricane Sandy mingled with a deadly mix of cold fronts and high tides to pummel the northeast. Philadelphia was in emergency mode, the City shut down save for emergency services and urgent rescue and relief efforts. Project HOME was part of that storm survival effort, particularly our Outreach Coordination Center. For two long days, OCC staff worked tirelessly around the clock to ensure that those who were homeless on the streets were given opportunities to come in from the storm.
With the City of Philadelphia declaring a Code Blue weather emergency, OCC teams went out on irregular outreach shifts on Sunday afternoon, as the storm was brewing, to check in with men and women on the streets. People had heard a hurricane was coming, but most doubted it would be serious and insisted they would be fine. Most of the folks engaged initially intended to wait it out, and were reluctant to come in to shelter.
However, as the storm worsened on Monday, outreach teams convinced several folks on the streets to accept offers of shelter. On Sunday, veteran outreach worker Pauline Vorn’s team engaged a group of men living under a bridge. They had constructed a tarp tent which they insisted would keep them safe and dry. When she returned to them on Monday, a fall tree had demolished the tarp, and they decided they would come into shelter after all.
City police were initially moving all people out of the subway concourses in Center City, because all public transit was being shut down. But OCC staff negotiated with police to allow one section of the concourse – under Broad and Locust, a one-time “box city” for persons who were street homeless – to remain open for all persons who wanted to get out of the storm by going underground. That area became a kind of command center for outreach teams to work with those who were homeless, to make sure they were safe and could access shelter.
Meanwhile, on Monday morning, the OCC offices at 1515 Fairmount Avenue were transformed into a hospitality center. OCC staff, receptionists, and several 1515 residents created a warm and welcoming space for many folks coming in from the streets (and from the neighborhood!). With sandwiches and snacks donated by some of our Trustees and other supporters, we were able to provide a “breakfast bar” and hot drinks. (Many of the Trustees’ sandwiches were also helpful on the streets and in the concourse.)
Two 1515 residents in particular, Cass Tuzzi and Joe Jackson, were marvelous hosts and organizers of the impromptu drop-in center. Other residents also offered support for those who came in from the storm. Our executive director, Sister Mary Scullion, did her own special outreach on the streets during the storm – as well as ensuring that the on-duty staff were treated to donuts.
(The spirit of care extended beyond Project HOME, as many people called into the Homeless Outreach Hotline (215-232-1984) to report on people who were out in the storm. Several of those calls were important in providing urgent help to people in need.)
“It was truly heartfelt to see everyone willing to the extra mile,” reflected OCC staffer Lynne Collins. “It reminded me of why we do what we do.”
“I am proud to be part of this dynamic community because we do great work all the time,” said Carol Thomas, OCC director. “However, it is in times of crisis that you really know the fortitude of our Project HOME community.”
The winds of Sandy were powerful, but the winds of care and compassion were even greater, with the result that our sisters and brothers who are homeless survived the brutal weather.
In the meantime, our thoughts and prayers are with all those throughout the region who suffered damage and loss from Hurricane Sandy. We pray that we can all work to ensure a speedy recovery for our entire community.