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A safe space on Broad Street

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Ten years ago, Bill Golderer moved into the century-old Chambers-Wylie Church on the Avenue of Arts and founded Broad Street Ministry (BSM). He had a vision to revitalize the defunct downtown church — with such an iconic space, all it would take was a repackaging of religion with new music, a passionate pastor and a commitment to social justice to attract the millennials, young professionals and families who were beginning to resettle within city limits. Unfortunately the young professionals never showed up. The city’s struggling, homeless, poor and working class did.

“The reality was that not only did I not feel like we could handle that, but I wasn’t inclined,” recalls Golderer. “In economic terms, they were going to be a cost center of energy and dollars. But then there was a bit of a gut-check there. This is our core mission. This is what we’re supposed to be about — not just Christianity, but all of the world’s religions.”

So Golderer came up with a new vision. Well-known today for serving meals to over 125,000 people over the last three years and a Kickstarter project with Federal Donuts that raised $179,380 from 1,500 supporters, Golderer and his team have created a revolutionary platform for community intervention.

Broad Street Hospitality Collaborative

As Golderer sees it, there is a prevailing wisdom about how to run an excellent nonprofit organization: Define as narrowly as possible the problem you are tackling, hone in on your theory of change to address that specific problem, and don’t fall prey to mission creep. Do one thing and do it well.


Golderer and the staff at BSM aren’t so into prevailing wisdom.

“It may make you a high performing nonprofit, but it doesn’t necessarily always serve the guest,” says Golderer; the organization refers to those who use its services as guests to underline the idea of hospitality. “While you may be incredible at addressing the fact that this person is in need of employment, the fact of the matter may be that they have compromised physical health or may have a behavioral health issue.”

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Ninety percent of the guests who take advantage of the services offered by the Broad Street Hospitality Collaborative (the ministry’s service and dining arm) have lived on the streets or in a shelter at one point in their life. Half are living on the streets or in a shelter right now. Half have visited the emergency room in the past three months and just one out of every 10 is employed.

“Our starting guide and assumption is that meaningful collaboration would have to happen across disciplines and expertise in order for us to get at anything that would represent a breakthrough in these folks’ lives,” explains Golderer.

So the Broad Street Hospitality Collaborative became a one-stop shop for Philadelphia’s most vulnerable residents. Many guests, like Marcus Pierce, come for one service but end up taking advantage of a range of offerings provided by BSM and its partners.

“The meals was the first thing I came for,” he recalls.

Pierce is 48 years old and has lived in Philadelphia for 15 years. He has been experiencing homelessness for seven years and has been a regular guest at BSM for five years. While the daily meal is what attracted him, he soon learned about the 315 Cafe — a city-funded initiative operated by BSM and Horizon House that provides a warm, safe place to sleep for 50 to 100 vulnerable adults on Philadelphia’s winter nights. For Pierce, meals and warm beds soon grew to include other services.

“I get my mail here, which is very crucial,” he says. “There are very few other places you can do that.”

Mail service was an early request from BSM guests, and one that caught Golderer and the staff off-guard. But without a permanent mailing address it can be extremely difficult to get a job, to receive federal benefits, or to procure official identification documents. Today, the post office is one of BSM’s most popular services — a Postmaster General handled over 90,000 pieces of mail for nearly 3,000 guests in 2014.

Pierce receives his toiletries from BSM, participates in art classes, and stops in for coffee on winter mornings. He is at the church nearly every day. Having received services from a range of different groups offering support to the homeless and vulnerable in Philadelphia, and living in and out of shelters, BSM is where Pierce keeps coming back to.

“They genuinely care about the people they provide services to,” he explains.

The 315 Cafe only operates during the winter months, so Pierce is staying on the street and coming to BSM each morning. But not for much longer: Two months ago, he began working with the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP), another BSM partner that provides legal and advocacy services to Philadelphia’s homeless population. The organization helped Pierce expunge his old criminal record, obtain his birth certificate and enroll in social security.

“With social security, I’m going to be able to get my own place,” he enthuses. “It’s going to be completely life-changing.”

Measuring Impact

BSM has changed the lives of many with their hospitality, sense of community and social services, but anecdotal evidence does little to reveal the overall impact an organization is having. The staff, including Chief Operating Officer Carrie Kitchen-Santiago, wanted to know more.

“The way we do everything here is very purposeful,” she explains. “We try to deliver all the services in a very dignified way, very hospitable. For many years that was just because we thought that was the right thing to do, but we couldn’t really measure it.”

Kitchen-Santiago joined BSM three-and-a-half years ago; soon after, the organization embarked on a mission to better understand who they were serving and how well they were serving them. They applied for and received an evaluation grant from the Scattergood Foundation which provided them with in-kind services from the Consultation Center at Yale University.

Over the course of two years, consultants from Yale worked with staff at BSM to develop a methodologically sound survey tool that would be minimally intrusive but yield valid results about demographics and the effectiveness of services. The 20-minute survey is conducted using annual in-person interviews, with follow-up interviews six months later. Interview subjects are selected using a randomized sampling technique and receive a $5 gift card for their participation.

Now in the final year of the three-year Scattergood grant, BSM is reaping the rewards of those efforts. Not only do they have a better sense of who they are serving, they are learning what it takes to have a more meaningful impact in the lives of their guests.

The length of time a guest continues to come to BSM seems crucial.

“Guests that have been coming for 12 months or more are more likely to be housed than homeless,” explains Kitchen-Santiago. “Guests that have been coming for less than 12 months were more likely to be homeless than housed.”

Furthermore, guests coming to BSM for more than 12 months were significantly more likely to receive Medicaid, disability insurance and SNAP benefits. Guests coming to BSM for more than six months were more likely to access housing services, mental health services and medical services rather than just coming for food or a bed in winter. These results echo Pierce’s experience and Golderer’s vision: Come for the food, stay for the community, and gradually take advantage of the available social services.

BSM is using the survey results not just to measure their success but to improve their programming. Participants were asked what services they have trouble accessing and wished BSM would provide. The top two answers were housing assistance and employment assistance. This spring BSM added a team of case managers to work one-on-one with individuals; one of their primary focus areas will be housing. Plans are in the place to add a workforce development program within the next three years. The demographic portion of the survey revealed a decline in the number of female guests at BSM, so new female-only and female-focused programming has been added.

Knowing what they are doing well and what they can do to improve — instead of just making assumptions — is the whole point.

“We’re not working off hunches,” insists Golderer. “The stakes are too high in these peoples’ lives for us to be guessing.”

Ministry Among Millennials

Philadelphia’s population is growing again. College graduates are staying in the city, finding jobs in burgeoning healthcare and technology fields. Immigrants are coming to the area, staying and raising families here. While the population rises, religious affiliation in Philadelphia and across the U.S. is declining. From 2007 to 2014, a Pew Research Center study found that the percentage of the population who see themselves as unaffiliated rose 6.7 percent and represents nearly a quarter of the country. One-third or less of millennials attend religious services regularly.

In the midst of all of that, a social justice organization with “Ministry” in the title that raises $179,380 on Kickstarter in less than two months stands out. For that project, BSM is partnering with local fried-chicken-and-donuts chain Federal Donuts — the restaurants will turn leftover chicken bones into stock, which will go into soups at the to-be-established “Rooster Soup Co.” One hundred percent of the profits will go to Broad Street’s Hospitality Collaborative. The goal is to create a sustainable source of funding for an organization that feeds the most vulnerable Philadelphians.

Of course, generating an outpouring of support like that required looking beyond the usual suspects — and beyond the faith.

“Christians are famous for ex-communicating people with whom they don’t share a worldview and I’ve found in my life that some secular folks are pretty capable of that same device of ex-communication,” muses Golderer. “But people rarely measure the cost in terms of what kind of society we’re going to have when people don’t collaborate across these supposed divisions.”

BSM opens its doors to everyone who needs services and everyone who can contribute services — guests, staff, volunteers and partner organizations. One senior staff member at BSM is Buddhist. Another is Jewish. Guests at the Broad Street Hospitality Collaborative are welcome to attend religious services at Broad Street Ministry, but there is a bright line of distinction between the two.

Trust is the word that Golderer comes back to again and again. Guests, volunteers and partners learn to trust that there isn’t a “subterranean conversion agenda” behind the work of the Hospitality Collaborative. Guests who trust BSM to provide a nutritious meal and to protect them and their belongings while they sleep in the Cafe grow to trust Golderer and his staff enough to take advantage of psychological services or health screenings. Partners who might see BSM as a competitor for limited nonprofit resources learn to trust that BSM is looking for cooperation, not cooption or competition.

“We all have these incredible biases that can become an obstacle,” explains Golderer. “But when you see the level of need and the level of desperation that comes through our doors, to be dogmatic and exclusive in the broadest sense of the term, that comes with a price.”

BRANDON ALCORN is the project manager for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and a freelance writer whose work has recently appeared in NatureThe New Republic and Slate. Follow him on Twitter at @b_alcorn.

This story originally appeared in our sister publication Flying Kite Media. This content was created in partnership with the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation, an organization that seeks to create opportunities for productive dialogue and learning within the behavioral health field.

Region: Southeast

Community, Features, Philadelphia