A Little Heaven From Underground | Project HOME

A Little Heaven From Underground


The spring edition of our News from HOME newsletter is hitting mailboxes this week.  We are reprinting here one of our front-page stories, about our second annual Hub of Hope winter initiative.  To read the entire newsletter online, click here. 

Riley was already a regular visitor to the Hub of Hope when he first displayed to the staff some of his artistic talent.  It was a day that was normal enough – whatever that means in a high-traffic, high-intensity ground zero of homelessness and poverty. 

“I want to share something I wrote with you,” Riley (not his real name) told me in his quiet, just audible voice after beckoning me over to where he was sitting. He began humming gently then broke into a soft, smooth, jazz melody. The longer he sang, the louder he crooned until his honeyed voice filled the entire space. “Wow…SING IT!” “I had no idea!” and “That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!” gasped from every corner. 

The jazz melody soon blended into a soulful R&B, then fused in rhythm, funk, percussion, and rap. The way Riley’s voice could slide into falsetto then glide dexterously into heavy doses of vocal synthesizers and percussion made it clear that his background included extensive musical training.  The concert lasted about half an hour, with other participants joining in for duets and harmonies and building connections from shared moments of pleasure singing musical favorites. 

The innovative winter walk-in engagement center recently completed a second successful season in the Suburban Station subway concourse, where its doors were open to individuals experiencing chronic street homelessness.  From the opening of this year’s initiative in mid-December, over 550 unique individuals came in – to see a case manager, talk to a peer specialist or a recovery specialist, visit the doctor, nurse, or psychiatrist, or grab a cup of coffee and a moment’s peace. Witnessing Riley shine that day was just one of many moments this winter when Hub of Hope staff were able to experience the beauty, grace, and strength of the many participants who came through our doors.  

This year’s program was again made possible because of valuable partners, including the City of Philadelphia, the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Jefferson University Hospital, Einstein Healthcare Network, Public Health Management Corporation, SEPTA Police, Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP), and Arch Street United Methodist Church. Working together since the early days of winter, we were able to deepen our understanding of the needs of people sleeping in the Suburban Station concourse, provide consistent access to physical and behavioral healthcare, and transition people experiencing long-term homelessness into permanent housing.

Riley was one of over 150 visitors to take advantage of the health clinic, and one of over 130 persons for whom we were able to find housing and treatment placements.  After years on the streets, he agreed to come inside to the SREHUP stabilization beds at Arch Street United Methodist Church for Hub of Hope participants.  From there, he moved into a safe haven and connected to an intensive case manager. We continue to encourage him to take positive steps to break the cycle of homelessness.

“The Hub is a special place,” says Riley.  “What attracted me to it were the windows – I saw them and wanted to check out what was inside.” He speaks so softly I have to lean in close to catch his words.  They have a lyrical quality and tumble off his tongue connecting to wisps of other thoughts floating in different strands somehow all connected in the atmospheric reality of Riley’s world that he is inviting me into. At first Riley is suspicious, distant—yet over time consistent, caring relationships reveal a beautiful, soft, artistic side.

“I am a singer,” Riley tells me, when I ask if I can tell the story of his singing in our newsletter.  “I like when music is interactive.”  He tells me the song he sang that first day was called “Heaven Most High” – “because it’s about an outer feeling.  Music can do that to you.”

You can read a full report on the outcomes of this year’s Hub of Hope here.