By David T. Jones
Acting Commissioner, DBHIDS
Summer is here –- at last -– and for many people, thoughts turn to fun family getaways, sitting out by the pool or on the beach and sweet treats like ice cream or water ice to cool us down. But for people who are living on the street, these options of summer escapes aren’t so readily accessible.
Hundreds of people experience periods of street homelessness in Philadelphia, using street corners, transit hubs and parks as shelter. Heavily-traveled areas, particularly in and around Center City, reveal the faces of this sad reality. And while being homeless can be devastating enough for an individual, the problem is only compounded for those who are also living with an untreated mental illness, addiction, or both.
The dangers of living on the street are plentiful and troubling, and each season of the year presents a unique set of challenges that heighten public concern for the safety and welfare of the homeless. Rising temperatures and high levels of humidity pose a threat to the homeless during the summer months when consecutive days of excessively hot weather can cause city officials to declare a Code Red emergency.
Even in the absence of a Code Red, individuals experiencing street homelessness during the summer are exposed to the risk of potentially dangerous health problems due to the elements, including:
- Hyperthermia caused by too many layers. Often those who have behavioral health or substance use issues wear too many clothes, even during warm-weather months
- Sunburn and photosensitivity caused by too much exposure to the sun
- Lyme disease and other conditions caused by insect bites
- Difficulty breathing due to poor air-quality, triggering asthma and other conditions
The Office of Homeless Services, in collaboration with DBHIDS and dozens of provider agencies, does a commendable job year-round to support individuals who are chronically homeless, getting them into shelters, transitioning them into housing, and directing those struggling with addiction to treatment while also connecting them with other resources for the homeless.
Day in, day out, our Homeless Outreach workers are deployed to assigned zones where humane and personalized outreach and support are their top priorities. Our team of dedicated and compassionate professionals strives to build relationships with those who are experiencing chronic street homelessness, helping them overcome their obstacles and reluctance to coming off the street, getting them into shelters and safe havens, and directing those struggling with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health challenges to treatment, such as the Journey of Hope Project, or connecting them with other homeless resources. Essentially, our homeless outreach staff acts as a bridge to a life beyond homelessness.
If you are concerned about how the weather may impact individuals who are living on the street and displaying behavioral health challenges, you can help by doing the following:
- Call the 24/7 Homeless Outreach hotline at 215-232-1984 to report a sighting
- As an alternative to money, offer cool bottled water
- In an emergency call 911 if an individual appears to be in danger
The issue of homelessness wasn’t created overnight and neither will the solution, but we are committed to doing all we can to ensure that homeless individuals with behavioral health challenges have access to the services along with the supported housing they deserve.