By Kevin Roberts
Harvard’s student-run shelter was profiled in the 2010 book Shelter: Where Harvard Meets Homeless, by Scott Seider. Based on this book, a group of Villanova students are opening a new housing project in Philadelphia — one run almost entirely by local college students, and driven by the activism and energy of young people trying to make a difference.
Taylor Cannon overheard a conversation that two of her Villanova classmates were having about a student-run project to help the homeless. On a whim, she decided to attend an informational meeting she’d heard them discussing. “I just thought, wow, that’s cool,” Cannon said. “I remember thinking it was very different that students would put themselves out there to help people who are experiencing homelessness.”
By the end of that first meeting, Cannon had joined. She was not alone. From an idea, a Facebook page, and word-of-mouth organizing, a new emergency housing program will open in Philadelphia in November run almost entirely by students. The Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP) is set to open November 20th in the basement of the Arch Street United Methodist Church. The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter has been successfully operating for 28 years, and among its many admirers is Villanova professor Stephanie Sena. Last year Sena broached the topic in her World History class, where one of the students was a young woman named Emily Durgin. It turned out Durgin’s sister is one of the Harvard shelter’s student directors. Durgin spent the last three years volunteering there during Christmas breaks. “Fate,” said Durgin, who approached Sena after class and is now SREHUP’s director of partnerships. “That’s crazy, right?” Durgin said her experiences volunteering at the Harvard shelter spurred her to get involved in this project. “Like many people my age, I had a lot of preconceived notions about the homeless population,” she said. “My first night, I spent time with the guests and very quickly realized how wrong I was, and how wrong so many of my peers were.” Still, no one quite knew whether other students would embrace the idea. The only way this would work, Sena said, is if college students wanted it, drove it, and supported it. They scheduled a meeting on campus to gauge interest. “The room was overflowing,” Durgin said. “I was so thrilled to see that.”
“Students at wealthier schools can tend to lead privileged lives, and sometimes live in a bubble where they think the whole world is their world,” said Sena, who is spearheading the project. Students are unable to understand people who haven’t had their same opportunities. At the same time, they are aware of that label and are resisting it. They are looking for opportunities to break out of that mold. “They’ve brought such creativity and energy. If you give them trust, and faith, they will do a lot with that. They’re not jaded, they’re much more optimistic – and that optimism is what you need to make change in the world. So far we’ve only had one person tell us this was a bad idea. He kept saying: You’re much too optimistic. We kept saying: Thank you. He meant it as criticism. We take it as a compliment.” Today SREHUP has chapters on a number of colleges in the Philadelphia area, and more than 200 students staff the project. SREHUP has a board of directors in place that boasts experts in the homelessness field and people who have experienced homelessness in the past. SREHUP is unique; it is not a shelter. There is no walk-in service, and SREHUP is not set up for on-site intake. The city and other providers will refer residents. For six months, the organization will take 30 of those people and connect them with resources such as job training to money management classes as they transition into housing. Residents will not be able to stay there indefinitely. “It’s not a band-aid, and it’s not a destination,” Sena said. Fund-raising for the project continues, but the location came together last month when Arch Street United Methodist Church and Rev. Robin Hynicka opened their doors. SREHUP had a location lined up at another spot in Center City, but it needed massive renovations and had other financial issues. After months of work, the site fell through. Sena said she was devastated, but was determined to find another spot. “I went through my notes, and found that in every conversation I had, everywhere I went, people told me: You should talk to Rev. Hynicka,” Sena said. “Robin Hynicka, Robin Hynicka – his name was everywhere in my notes. When I contacted him, he said, ‘We’d love to have you.’ He’s been amazing.” Arch Street United Methodist Church houses several groups and activities during the day, including One Step Away’s downtown distribution center (Rev. Hynicka, a longtime advocate for homeless causes, is a member of One Step Away’s advisory board). But SREHUP will provide emergency housing only in the evenings, while connecting residents with resources to aid them in finding employment and housing during the day. Through all the fits, starts, fundraising and partnerships, SREHUP was driven by the enthusiasm and activism of local college students determined to help people find a home.
“Ever since we started this, we treated it like, this will happen,” Cannon said. Durgin and Cannon are two of 20 student directors who will be driving SREHUP, which is set to open during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Durgin said she’s confident that future generations of young people will be spurred to activism and will keep it going, even after the current group graduates and moves on. “It seems like a lofty goal, but you can see students get grabbed by it,” Durgin said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that every year freshmen will volunteer and want to get more involved and become directors. We are optimistic about what we can do. It’s beyond exciting to see it happen. It’s amazing to see that it’s really coming true.”
KEVIN ROBERTS reports for One Step Away, a Philadelphia-based street newspaper. For more information on the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP), please see http://www.srehup.org
PHOTO/EDDIE BYRD/ONE STEP AWAY