A New Approach to Homeless Services

A UCD Public Safety Ambassador with Postcards
Oct 24, 2023 5 months ago

At University City District, the unifying mission across all our work is to change places and change lives. This mission is evident in our West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, where we recruit Philadelphians to train for meaningful, career-changing positions with major employers. It’s clear in our Green City Works landscaping social venture, which employs West Philadelphians in well-paying, full-year landscaping positions. Our clean and safe teams, who have been offering safety and beautification services since our formation in 1997, work every day to keep our neighborhood welcoming and attractive. And our placemaking projects, ranging from permanent signature spaces to temporary activations, bring vibrancy and life to the public realm.

A new challenge has arisen in our neighborhood, and across the United States, over the past few years: the challenge of homelessness. According to a March 2023 article in US News and World Report, chronic homelessness in America has risen 65% since a 2016 low. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development presented even more sobering statistics in their 2022 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress, including that on a single night in 2022, roughly 582,000 people in the US were experiencing homelessness, and four in ten were in unsheltered locations not suitable for human habitation. University City, like neighborhoods across Philadelphia and in most major US cities, has seen an increase in the number of unhoused individuals in parks, public spaces, and elsewhere in the public realm.

Our Public Safety Ambassadors, uniformed in black and yellow, offer a variety of services including walking escorts, vehicle jumpstarts, and homeless outreach. During interactions with the unhoused, our goal is not to tell people where they can and cannot be—instead, when Safety Ambassadors encounter unhoused people living on the streets or in public spaces, they attempt to connect individuals with other agencies including Project HOME, Horizon House, and the City’s Office of Homeless Services. These partners, along with the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, are crucial to supporting our efforts. 

The approach of offering outreach, however, isn’t always successful. Sometimes unhoused individuals do not want to stay in shelters for a variety of reasons—they may have had previous bad experiences, they may not want to be separated from friends or loved ones, they may have a dependency on drugs or alcohol. After a few years of trial and error, UCD decided to expand our services by creating an initiative called HOST, or a Homeless Outreach Services Team. We realized we needed to hire and train someone who could oversee our work with the homeless, and to get to know the people we encountered time and time again who were unwilling to accept outreach. In the spring of 2023, we created a position and posted the opening, hoping to find someone with the passion and experience to lead this team internally.  

Word of our efforts spread and eventually reached the attention of a young woman who wanted to work in this field, and in April of 2023, Caitlyn Shauger joined our team in the position of Homeless Outreach Services Manager.  

Caitlyn’s journey to working with UCD was not straightforward. She first came to Philadelphia to pursue a degree in interior design from Thomas Jefferson University. While living in the East Falls section of Philadelphia and attending college, Caitlyn would often stop at a neighborhood gas station and Dunkin Donuts. There, she frequently encountered a man named Randy who spent most mornings asking customers for money in exchange for pumping their gas. Many customers ignored Randy when he approached them, and this didn’t sit well with Caitlyn. “It was upsetting to me that people are so dismissive of those who are struggling,” Caitlyn says.  

Caitlyn made a point to stop and chat with Randy and pay him a few dollars to pump her gas. After a few months and several conversations, they had struck up a friendship and Randy opened up to Caitlyn about his plight, revealing that he’d spent time living on the streets but was now working on himself. He had saved to purchase things that would improve his life—a cell phone, a laptop—and he lived in a small apartment above where he worked. As she got to know Randy better, Caitlyn realized that what Randy really was seeking more than money for pumping gas was company and people to talk to. By getting to know Randy and hearing his story, Caitlyn was inspired to get to know other people she encountered who seemed to be going through difficult times. 

 

As part of her final year at Jefferson, Caitlyn and her classmates were assigned a year-long project that involved creating blueprints and a design for a store or facility. Inspired by her interactions with Randy and his stories of being on the streets, Caitlyn opted to work on a concept for a homeless outreach facility. Caitlyn researched the existing homeless outreach services in Philadelphia and attempted to develop something new. Her work and research lit a spark for her, and allowed her to use her design knowledge while also recognizing what she felt was her social responsibility to help others. By the time she graduated, Caitlyn had decided her true passion was working to help others, and she made it her mission to find a job where she could work with the homeless in Philadelphia.  

After a few months of searching, Caitlyn’s breakthrough came when she applied to be an overnight outreach advisor at Horizon House, a local agency offering community-based treatment and rehabilitation services. Andrea Bowen, then working as the Outreach Manager of Homeless Services at Horizon House, knew of the open position at UCD, and reached out to Alan Garry, our Senior Vice President for Public Safety and District Services, to discuss Caitlyn and her application. After speaking with Alan, Andrea contacted Caitlyn to tell her about our open role and encourage her to apply.  

“My parents were pushing me to find something concrete,” Caitlyn says about her job search.  “Hearing about this position was insane. This was exactly what I was looking for.”  

The position gave Caitlyn a lot of flexibility and allowed her to be creative. Her role has her serve as an informal caseworker for people she encounters in the neighborhood who are living in the streets. Just like with her friend Randy, Caitlyn gets to know unhoused people as people, and to try and assess their situations and their lives in order to find the most effective ways to help.    

One example came during her first few months in the role. Caitlyn had engaged with a double amputee we will call Andrew who was struggling to get around in an old, broken wheelchair. Caitlyn had gotten to know Andrew by speaking with him, hearing his story, and earning his trust, and she concluded that the most effective way to help Andrew was to get him a new wheelchair. She worked through this idea with other members of our team, and eventually we convinced a partner to donate several used wheelchairs, one of which went straight to Andrew. 

Not every day ends with such impactful results. During her initial six months in the role, Caitlyn worked to get her face and name out on the streets to people who may need her assistance. She arrives at the office, reviews the previous day’s outreach reports, and then goes out to meet with her participants. “My approach is to talk to people every single day, to become part of their daily routine, and to figure out what we can provide to help.”  

She’s learning the sorts of things that people need to improve their lives, from basic staples like food and water to bus passes for getting around the city. By getting to know her participants, she can learn their larger goals and aspirations, such as being connected to rehabilitation programs, applying for jobs, or finding permanent places to live. 

But even before those large goals can be accomplished, Caitlyn says the most important thing is to simply offer support, and to demonstrate that someone is on their side, whether it’s to help them schedule a medical appointment or talk them through the process of getting a new or renewed government ID. “The system can be daunting, and people can get stuck in a cycle,” Caitlyn explains. When pressed on why she’s good for this role, Caitlyn attributes her early success to her patience, her ability to approach each person she encounters free of judgment, and her love for the work.  

When she’s not out in the neighborhood, Caitlyn is doing research and making plans for our HOST program to expand and develop more formalized systems. Eventually, the idea for Caitlyn’s role is for her to oversee others to do these types of personal checks, including a dedicated outreach ambassador from our larger public safety team. 

But because of her makeup and her desire to help others, Caitlyn hopes to remain involved in the lives of her participants. Since helping Andrew obtain a wheelchair, Caitlyn has moved on to helping him become reenrolled in social security, and her long-term goal is to help him reconnect with his children. It’s this type of personal involvement and engagement that has made her effective in the role so far, and we look forward to her continuing to grow our services and our team so we can continue changing places and changing lives.