Homelessness, poverty, and unemployment are substantial and persistent issues in most of the large cities, with big population and a limited number of jobs available, the job security is very low, workers rights are limited, and wages are under the minimum living level. Such situation creates significant inequality, unstable political situation with a number of riots and society/government clashes, increased levels of crime, and racial discrimination. On the individual level poverty is felt more acutely. In addition to the lack of stable income, or in many cases any sort of income, to provide the primary necessities, such as food and housing, poverty has a great effect on health, both physical and mental, life expectancy, and the access to education.
Philadelphia has one of the largest economies in the United States and simultaneously the largest population that live under the level of poverty. The economy of the city is primarily based on medical research, education, and tourism. Most of the jobs in these sectors require a higher education and the number of available jobs is limited. In addition, the access to primary and secondary education in the city is inadequate and becoming scarcer with years as the schools are closing in order to cut the government’s spending. Thirty percent of the city population live below the poverty level while twelve percent live below half of the poverty level. To look at these proportions in perspective, 400,000 out of 1.5 million Philadelphians live under the level of poverty and 180,000 people live on less than 50% of the poverty level income.
In Philadelphia we arrived on Friday evening. Our home for the week was a church that is located across the street from the Philadelphia City Hall. The main goal of our trip was to explore the labor issues in the area, look into the workings of labor unions, and discover the root causes of poverty. Incidentally, after we had our first dinner at the church we found out that a few volunteers were needed in the homeless shelter that was held downstairs in the basement. Three of us stayed to help. We met two girls from a medical school who volunteer in this shelter once a week. They showed us around the kitchen and introduced us to their usual routine. While the main course of rice and chicken was in the oven, we washed the dishes, cleaned the tables, and opened canned vegetables. When the dinner was prepared we served it in the main hall and after serving stayed in the shelter and talked to the people. Some of them were restrained and not talkative, they ate on their beds and went to sleep, others were happy to learn about the purpose of our trip and share their opinions on the subject. The first evening in the shelter has brought us a step closer to understanding the issues that we were set to explore and made us encounter the problem on a more personal level.
This experience continued a few days later when the church has opened its doors to the hungry and held a big dinner that they call a Grace Café. We were joined by another college group and a great number of volunteers who were preparing and serving food; the children were handing out cups of water at the tables. The large hall that previously held a shelter was packed. There was a line of people that was getting longer with every minute. We spread out to different tables and talked to people about their lives and experiences. Once again many were willing to share their stories, their struggles, and their wishes; others preferred to have more neutral conversations, asked us about our week in Philly, and gave us advice on the interesting locations to visit in our free time. Everyone had great time and made new friends.
In order to generate some income many homeless or unemployed engage in selling the street newspaper One Step Away. It is written by the residents of a Philadelphia shelter, and is meant to raise awareness about homelessness in the city and give an opportunity for the writers to develop a set of skills that can be valuable for their future employment. Each paper is sold for one dollar, the distributors are allowed to keep 75% of the sales. During one of the days of our trip we went outside in snow and rain trying to sell the paper to passersby. Despite the bad weather and the hurrying crowd, some people stopped, bought the paper, or donated a few dollars, while others marched on by without acknowledging our presence. The day’s experience was both tough and rewarding. We learned a great deal about the struggles of those who have to strand on the streets for hours, and in any weather, in order to provide themselves with the few dollars that they receive from the sales but that are sometimes so essential for someone’s survival.
In addition to proving shelter and food for the homeless on the daily basis the church was in the process of working on the Serenity House, a building in one of the poorest areas of Philadelphia that provides people with longer term housing and holds men and women support groups. Even though the renovation and reorganization of the house is sponsored by the church, the house itself remains non-religious and focuses on spirituality in general terms in order welcome people of different religious background. When we arrived to the house, only the first floor was fully renovated, the second floor was partially finished, and the third floor required critical renovation and was full of old furniture. Our work consisted primarily of clearing out the third floor, demolishing the old floor and the old ceiling, painting the walls, and raking the garden. While working on the house we got a chance to think about the effort and the dedication that people put into helping other who are in need, realizing the significance of our participation in the issues of the community, and the necessity of our contribution to the social causes.
Another perspective on the matter was introduced to us during the meeting with the directors of a coalition organization of labor unions and civil groups that strive to impact the legislature on the city and facilitate the change that would benefit the workers. She led us through the process of organizing and carrying out a campaign. She assigned each one of as a role in the system and introduces issues for us to solve and the obstacles that we would face. The agenda on the table was the creation of sick and personal days for the workers of Philadelphia. The first step in the process is collection of the signatures for the petition; once a sufficient number of signatures are collected and the claim of extensive public support of the issue can be made, it has to gain the necessary attention in the media and the city council; for that purpose the street rallies are organized at the City Hall. If despite of the acquired media attention and public support the council member are unresponsive, individual approaches have to be made in order to give them an incentive to support the cause. In order to bring the issue to the table in the council, a supporter must be found among the council members who can present this issue to the others and convince them of its validity and importance. In order for the legislature to be voted through, it must gain the support of the majority; to ensure this the interested group must divide the members of the council into three groups: yes, no, and maybe. Those members who hesitate on their decision are first incentivized peacefully, if that strategy does not work than, as the last resort, a series of attacks is made on each person individually, such as dumping campaign fliers on the member’s front yard in order to coerce him or her to vote positive. Such actions, when taken to the extreme, entail great risks for the campaign and for the organizers, and oftentimes lead to imprisonment.
Working with another group, a congregation of religious organizations, introduced us closer to this process. We were given clipboards and pens and sent out onto the streets to gather signatures for support of the creation of new jobs for Philadelphians. For the planned construction of a new terminal of Philadelphia International Airport thousands of jobs have to be created, the petition required these jobs to remain in the city and provide the workers with living wages and the necessary benefits. Most of the people who we asked on the street recognized the issue of unemployment and were willing to sign the petition. We collected many signatures but it was too small of a number to come anywhere near to solving the issue or even progressing in the process; and even though the people are willing to support the cause, a great amount of effort must be put into raising a broader awareness about the issue, educating people about the possible ways to support it, and encouraging them to act.
Our work in Philadelphia gave me an entirely new perspective on the issues of poverty and unemployment. As student who is majoring in International Relations in Economic I spend a great amount of time learning about the issues of development. In Philadelphia I could encounter the problem in practice. Academically, it gave me a greater insight into the problem and allowed to look at the issue of development in greater complexity. Personally, I gained a unique experience that made me appreciate life and people a bit more and allowed me to meet many great individuals with different backgrounds, different position, different opinions, but all fighting for the same causes: human rights, equality, and social justice.
- Elena Gillis