EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series called “Zig Zag: The Winding Path to Making Ends Meet in Philadelphia,” which focuses on how improving one facet of a person’s life — from housing, to education, to business — can establish a stable foundation for economic mobility. The series is produced with support from Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic mobility. Next City is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly. Follow us on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
Rocky, 32, a South Philadelphia native, fell into fentanyl addiction after a series of traumatic events that left him scarred with PTSD: In 2014, he lost the love of his longtime girlfriend; his cousin, who was more like a brother, died a tragic death that Rocky still can’t bring himself to talk about; and his brother went to prison.
“I kept on getting worse and worse with the drugs because I was trying to numb the pain,” Rocky says.
He wound up homeless, sleeping on his parents’ porch for a month before crashing on park benches and eventually finding his way to the “tubes” in South Philadelphia — enormous steel pipes stacked one atop another like logs at an abandoned construction site. He was starting to get “comfortable,” Rocky says, having his fentanyl delivered, sitting on a couch inside his hideout.
But then he met Edward Dover, known simply as “Dover” to friends and colleagues, the lead outreach worker for Project HOME, one of the Philadelphia organizations that tries to connect those experiencing homelessness with housing and other services, such as rehab.
“He asked me if I needed anything,” Rocky recalls. “I told him, ‘Yeah! I could use some boots and some clothes maybe.’ The next day he came with a nice pair of boots because it was wintertime, and I had holes in the bottom of my boots. I was getting my feet soaking wet every day. He kept in contact all the time.”
The minute Rocky was ready to get help, Dover found him a bed at Kirkbride Center, a behavioral health care facility in Philadelphia. When it proved to be a bad fit, Dover got Rocky into another treatment center, Journey of Hope in North Philadelphia.
“I say it all the time that I could not be where I am right now if it wasn’t for Dover,” Rocky says, on his 205th day sober.
Pretty soon, Rocky will be eligible for an apartment through the Journey of Hope program and is applying for disability because of his PTSD. As an extraordinary outreach worker by all accounts, Dover had the compassion and tools that Rocky needed at just the right time.
“People need to understand that they shouldn’t judge homeless people,” Rocky says. “They don’t know their past. They don’t know what happened to them that led to them being homeless.”
Plus, Rocky says, Dover understands that many people don’t — that substance use disorder is a disease.
“When I was battling drugs, I used to say, ‘I wish I could change places with someone so that someone could feel the pain that I do for one day.’ … just so they understand and kinda feel for us,” Rocky reflects.
Dover not only understands, he takes action to help combat the escalating problem with homelessness in the United States — especially since COVID-19 hit.
According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, 17 out of every 10,000 people in this country experience homelessness on any given night, according to HUD’s 2019 Annual Point-in-Time Count. HUD stresses that “these 567,715 people represent a cross-section of America” — that they are “associated with every region of the country, family status, gender category and racial/ethnic group.”
Rocky at Mander Playground, in Fairmont Park. With Dover’s assistance, he will soon be eligible for an apartment through the Journey of Hope program.
Permanent supportive housing, an intervention that combines affordable housing with social support services, currently represents 41.8 percent of all homeless assistance beds, according to HUD, though these numbers are based on 2017 counts. Emergency shelters are next, representing nearly 33 percent of homeless assistance beds. Rapid rehousing, in which unsheltered individuals move directly from the street into permanent housing, is a newer program that accounts for more than one in 10 beds nationally — a 372 percent increase from 2013 to 2017, according to HUD.
Liz Hersh, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services, says that one of the things that “plagues” outreach workers is that “people don’t believe homelessness is solvable.” That’s a myth; she says she and others in the field have seen “over and over again that when we are able to give people what they need, they don’t want to be homeless.”
Outreach workers such as Dover are the connective tissue between people on the street and finding placements. Research shows that helping unsheltered individuals find permanent housing can be the catalyst that turns their lives around. Those who work with people experiencing homelessness say that making these matches is not easy under normal circumstances and has been made exponentially more difficult by COVID-19. Not only have outreach workers been having to worry about those living on the street being unsheltered and at risk of contracting coronavirus, but they have also been concerned about keeping themselves healthy, retrofitting shelters and other sites to meet CDC guidelines, and educating people about the dangers the virus poses. To fully grasp the empathy and relationship-building necessary to transition people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing, it helps to understand more about Dover himself.
Finding the Way in
Early on in his 15-plus-year outreach career, Dover learned an important lesson: not promising more than he can deliver.
“That’s one of the first mistakes I made is you can’t promise anybody because they’ll hold you to it, and if you don’t deliver, they won’t mess with you anymore,” Dover says. “That person will spread the word to everybody else what you did, and [then] that next person won’t deal with you. And it will trickle all the way down until you [think] , ‘Damn. I don’t even know why I’m doing this anymore. Ain’t nobody trust me.’ That’s the one mistake I made.”
Tim Sheahan, director of homeless services for Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, says, “As our commissioner [David T. Jones] who just left said, ‘Under-promise and over-deliver.’”
His early learning curve aside, Dover has used this approach well as he has helped place people in secure housing during the closing of encampments around the city, including most recently the one on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which supported between 175 and 220 unsheltered people at its peak. He also visits the nooks and crannies around town where he knows people experiencing homelessness hang out. Dover uses compassion and remains persistent in his outreach work, but tries not to push too hard.
“If you push, you can’t build a relationship,” Dover says. “If you are pushing and pushing, they’re never going to talk to you.”
Fostering relationships is the goal, Dover says.
“I try not to be a nuisance to [the clients] and come up to them with the same information every day,” Dover says. “I try to change the subject up — you know — talk about different things to build a relationship with them. That’s the whole point of what a person doing outreach does. After I get the relationship with them, it makes my job easier, especially trying to meet their needs.”
One of Dover’s tricks? He uses a cigarette to draw people out.
“It’s amazing the kind of conversation you get from a cigarette,” Dover says. “They talk to you through the tent. As soon as you offer them a cigarette, they come out of the tent — so if I never offered that cigarette, they’d still be talking to [me] through the tent. So I’m, ‘You like a cigarette?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Sure. Let me put my pants on.’ And they talk to you to find out what we do.”
“Our big thing is you live a longer life when you’re housed,” Sheahan says. “Often, no, it’s not immediately permanent housing.” It may be a safe haven or a shelter. “But it gets you in the [system], and eventually it leads to a housing match. And folks move along that continuum.
In fiscal year 2020, 82 percent of those who left an emergency shelter, safe haven, or transitional housing project did not return to homelessness, according to Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services FY 2020 Data Snapshot. The goal is to make homelessness non-recurring, according to the report, and the numbers seem to support that individuals who enter the temporary housing system have a higher chance of becoming permanently housed.
Holding Steady During COVID-19
Adjusting to the pandemic made existing challenges steeper. “It was really a very seismic system change overnight,” says Hersh.
Since the beginning of COVID-19, many of the day programs for unsheltered people have shuttered. The focus has been on getting food and other basic necessities out to people on the street. Outreach workers have been educating individuals about sanitation and social distancing, and guiding people to handwashing stations and portable restrooms that the city has set up in different neighborhoods, Sheahan said.
In addition, the city had to de-densify every shelter to move beds at least six feet apart and install bed barriers.