The Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP) was founded in the spring of 2011 by a group of students at Villanova University, supported and encouraged by Professor Stephanie Sena. At the time, the Ridge Center, Philadelphia’s largest emergency housing unit, had just announced that it would be permanently closing at the end of the year. Having just taught a class on social justice at Villanova in the fall semester, Stephanie Sena, amazed by her students’ determination to make a difference in the world and inspired by a report on National Public Radio about the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, a student-run emergency housing unit in Cambridge, Massachusetts, decided to see if students around Philadelphia wanted to take on the fight against homelessness in the city.
The lecture hall was packed during the first meeting organized to gauge interest. From that room full of enthusiastic young leaders, 20 student leaders emerged and began organizing what would soon become a student-run non-profit organization bringing together college students from five schools and housing 70 guests.
Working closely with the students who run the shelter at Harvard in order to gain knowledge and experience, the 20 student leaders began to establish the foundations of SREHUP. The group of students even spent their spring breaks at Harvard in order to work at their housing unit and see firsthand how to operate a student-run shelter. The trip was invaluable to the founders of SREHUP and created a lasting bond between these two student populations, united by a shared concern for people plagued by homelessness.
Recognizing their roles as students with much to contribute and much to learn in the fight to end homelessness, the directors of SREHUP began to seek out partnerships with non-profit organizations in Philadelphia, such as Project H.O.M.E., the Foyer of Philadelphia, and the Bethesda Project. Learning from the examples of these organizations, SREHUP began to take on an identity of its own, adapting Harvard’s model and turning it into something unique that more specifically and effectively addressed the needs of people experiencing homelessness here in Philadelphia.
After working tirelessly for nine months, SREHUP became a legally recognized non-profit organization in October 2011, aided greatly by the expert pro bono legal representation from the law firm of Pepper-Hamilton LLP. In its first year, SREHUP was partnered in operating three emergency housing units in Philadelphia. It successfully launched chapters at Villanova University, Swarthmore College, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and Temple University. Between these five chapters, SREHUP engaged over 300 student volunteers in its work and aided in housing and serving up to 70 guests experiencing homelessness on any given night.
More significantly, SREHUP made a lasting positive difference in the lives of many individuals experiencing homelessness that first year. People who had previously refused to enter shelters because of bad past experiences chose to accept a place at SREHUP’s units. The stability that the units provided, along with the urgency created by operating for a span of only the five most vulnerable months of the year, between November and April, allowed and encouraged guests to access the resources needed to achieve more permanent housing. SREHUP is proud to report that a number of our guests from that first year were successful in escaping homelessness and currently live in their own apartments. The success of that first year has fueled the organization to be enthusiastic and dedicated in continuing the fight against homelessness through providing immediate relief and facilitating long-term change.