After living on the streets of Philadelphia together, homeless and with no other options, James and Shacora eventually checked into RHD’s Progress Haven shelter for couples, one of only four couples shelters nationwide.
That was a year ago.
Recently, James and Shacora celebrated their 16th anniversary by checking out of the shelter operated by Resources for Human Development and funded by the City of Philadelphia, reuniting with their children and starting a new life in their own rented apartment.
“I have a saying: ‘Teamwork makes the dream work,’ ” said Shacora. “We had a dream when we came in here. We worked together to make it happen. Now we know homelessness was just a bump in the road, and it will get better.”
It might not have been possible without Progress Haven, because James and Shacora were so committed to staying together that they refused to come inside to avail themselves of emergency shelter services that split them up into gender-specific facilities.
Progress Haven is the only couples shelters in Philadelphia, said Sandra Campbell, Progress Haven’s assistant director, despite anecdotal evidence that couples make up more of the city’s homeless population than in the past. At Progress Haven, there’s a long waiting list of homeless couples who want to go there.
“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 Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) expanded the shelter to accommodate 10 couples. Yet the waiting list grew.
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 present mental health and/or addiction issues.
Before their temporary residency at Progress Haven, James and Shacora had been renting a house with four children, but James’ construction work fell off and they got behind on their bills. As pressures rose, they relied more heavily on alcohol and marijuana. In a home they lived 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 the couple.
So the pair lived on the street and in a public park, committed to staying together.
“We’d fought for 15 years to be together,” Shacora said. “We decided to keep fighting.”
Despite their circumstances, James and Shacora shied away from outreach workers who occasionally came around offering to place James in a men’s shelter and Shacora in a women’s shelter.
“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.”
In fact, the social workers did offer to place the couple in Progress Haven, too, but Shacora said she didn’t understand how the shelter was different from the others.
“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, drug-free and with computer classes at Progress Haven under their belts, James and Shacora are ready to move into their own four-bedroom Philadelphia Housing Authority unit and be reunited with their children.
James still visits Love Park; he feeds the homeless and hungry there every week with his church.
“I still see some people out there, couples who won’t come in,” he said.
“If we hadn’t been able to come here, we’d still be out there, running around like chickens with our heads cut off,” Shacora said. “If it hadn’t been for a place like this, I don’t know what we would have done.”