How OHS funding woes are failing Philadelphia’s homeless population

OHS Philadelphia

On any given night in Philadelphia, around 4,700 people experience homelessness in the city, according to a 2023 survey. At the same time, there are 5,000 beds in emergency shelters, safe havens, and transition houses throughout the city. These numbers show that there are enough emergency shelter beds for all of the houseless people in Philadelphia. 

But access to these beds is now limited by a lack of staff and funding at the city’s main resource to prevent homelessness – the Office of Homeless Services (OHS).

Operating since 2010, the OHS was formed to work with more than 60 homeless housing and service providers, as well as city, state, and federal governments. Yet, the city-funded department has struggled with staff and funding deficits, making it increasingly challenging to assist the city’s homeless population.

OHS Philadelphia

Typically, there are two ways to get in touch with OHS intake social workers and case managers: visit an intake center, or call the Homelessness Prevention Hotline.

Unfortunately, getting to a center to apply for a bed at a shelter – with no guarantees of being accepted – is hard for many people who have no transportation. Furthermore, due to high call volume, it may take more than 72 hours to receive a callback from someone at the hotline.

The OHS has been facing scrutiny over numerous issues this year, including confusion about where to send people during severe winter weather, unpaid contracts, and overspending its budget. 

After personally contacting the OHS to help a constituent, Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson highlighted potentially questionable practices and a lack of leadership and transparency.

“I received a call from a constituent with five children who desperately needed shelter, so I called one of the housing intake centers and explained the family’s situation to the operator,” said Gilmore Richardson. “I received incredibly poor service and was informed that they would not be able to let me know if they could assist this constituent until they arrived at one of the intake centers. They expected a mother of five young children to travel across the city with no guarantee of shelter.”

OHS investigation 

During an appropriations hearing at City Hall in the fall of 2023, OHS requested $14.7 million in funding to cover the cost of overspending and mismanagement of funds. Last month, Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle L. Parker announced an investigation of OHS finances. 

“The city has retained an independent accounting firm to conduct a forensic investigation of the finances of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, together with the City Office of Inspector General,” Parker stated in a city press release. “The Inspector General has shared some preliminary findings, and they are of grave concern.” 

The investigation being conducted under Parker’s direction is focusing on finances during the administration of former Mayor Jim Kenney, and his appointed OHS executive director, Liz Hersh. Hersh has since resigned and was replaced by interim director, David Holloman. 

Under Hersh, the OHS housing-first approach generated a 90% success rate in preventing a return to homelessness among people in supportive housing. OHS also delivered a 35% reduction over a 6-year period in the number of unsheltered people, according to Point In Time reports

Consequently, Philadelphia’s OHS system is considered a national model studied by cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Austin. And despite budgetary woes, Holloman stressed that the city’s shelters are — and always been — open and operational. 

“One thing I want to say — if people need help, please come into our intake sites,” said Holloman. “Despite the budgetary challenges, we are still fortunate to be able to provide services for all walks of life. We look forward to continuing that work.”

Overcoming hurdles

In some cases, mental illness is a key factor in the decision to avoid shelter. The most recently available data indicate that three-quarters of people experiencing homelessness have a mental health diagnosis, and that nearly a quarter of them have schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders.

“Many good people suffer from substance disorders and mental illness and need help finding their way,” said State Senator Nikal Saval, a sponsor of the 2021 Fair Chance Housing Act. “If the city has problems providing resources, it’s something to look at. We have all these abandoned homes in Philly, let’s fix them up and let houseless people have the dignity they deserve.”

According to Generosity, in a 2022 study done by the OHS, 18% of the city’s houseless population choose to live unsheltered in places unsuitable for human habitation, such as public parks and abandoned lots. 

“I tried to get a place to stay one time and the people wouldn’t pick up the phone,” said Reba, a 39-year-old houseless woman. “Plus I heard they got so many rules at those places and everyone there been to jail so they be hustlin.”

As pandemic-era protections expire, more Philadelphians are now facing homelessness. The city aims to distribute $42 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding for houseless services, and new housing projects for young people aged 18-24 are expected to begin this fall, as reported by Axios

But most emergency shelters and federal houseless programs rely on OHS for funding or guidance in the city’s houseless landscape — impacting thousands of Philadelphians who just want a place to call home.


Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to state the Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services is currently open and operational. 

‘Housing For All’ is a two-year project in which Metro Philadelphia will investigate the city’s affordable housing crisis. It is made possible by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism’s Philadelphia Local News Sustainability Initiative grant.