Philadelphia shelter provides a rare haven for the city’s homeless couples
James and Shacora sat at the edge of their bed, finishing each other’s sentences. James noted that they have been together 15 years and Shacora corrected him and said: “Going on 16, actually.”
“Well, 16 years in January,” James said, and Shacora added: “January 15.”
James and Shacora are residents at Progress Haven in Philadelphia, and will celebrate their 16th anniversary by moving out of the shelter and reuniting with their children in a new home. It might not have been possible without Progress Haven because they were so committed to staying together that they refused to go inside to services that split them up, which was most of them.
Shelters that take couples are rare. Progress Haven is one of only four couples shelters in the country, said Sandra Campbell, Progress Haven’s assistant director.
The lack of shelters for couples, particularly couples without children, means more people stay on the streets.
“We hear that all the time — I’m not leaving my mate, and I won’t come in without them,” Campbell said. “There are more couples out there on the street than people realize; there is a need for coupling, for protection and survival.”
Progress Haven opened in 2006, with room for five couples. Within three months, there was such a need that the Department of Behavioral Health (dbh) expanded the shelter to 10 couples — and there is a lengthy waiting list. In order to gain entrance to Progress Haven, couples must be referred by dbh, must be living on the street at the time of admittance, and must have mental health and/or addiction issues.
James and Shacora entered Progress Haven a year ago. They had a house with four children, but James’ construction work fell off and they got behind on their bills. In a home they’d live in for seven years, they fell two months behind on rent and were evicted. They went to a motel for a time but couldn’t afford to stay. Shacora’s mom took their children, but had no room for them.
“We’d fought for 15 years to be together,” Shacora said. “We decided to keep fighting, and fight it out at Love Park.
“I was terrified of the things I saw out there. It was crazy out there.”
“If you’re weak, they get you,” James said. “You need a strong mate to be with you.”
Still when they saw outreach workers, James and Shacora shied away. They were offering a men’s shelter to James and a women’s shelter to Shacora, and they refused.
“We would rather stay on the street than be separated,” Shacora said. “We’d avoid the outreach. They were going to separate us, so we just stayed away. I turned this very place down three times because I just didn’t know that we could stay together here. But ever since we walked in the door, being here was the best thing we could have done.”
Stabilized, with six months of passing every drug test, and now taking computer classes at Progress Haven, James and Shacora are ready to move into their own house. Progress Haven director Theresa Patterson-Brown said James and Shacora are unusual for having stayed together once getting housing, but added that there’s no “typical” couple living on the streets.
“Some are married; most are not,” Patterson said. “We’ve had homosexual couples, transgender couples. Couples meet on the street and form a relationship on the street. Now, many times when they come in and live together inside, they decide not to stay together. When they’re living together inside, sometimes they will tend to get these little issues that come up and create conflict — as happens with all of us.
James still visits Love Park; he feeds the homeless and hungry there every week with his church group.
“I still see some people out there, couples who won’t come in,” he said.
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