Leaning on her cane, Dee McDowell shuffles up to join the line forming in the well-lighted room at Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia. She, like the others there, came to pick up mail.
Once McDowell worked in a store and had a real home address. Today, the 48-year-old from North Jersey lives on the streets. A series of calamities in relationships and health led to her losing both job and home. She’s waiting now for correspondence from her bank—hoping to get reestablished and back on the grid of normal life.
Since 2010, Broad Street Ministry has served as a kind of post office for homeless people. Of all the things the homeless have lost, an address for receiving important mail is one of the most difficult to function without. Currently, more than 3,200 people use the ministry’s mail service. Broad Street does not offer shelter. But it does offer meals, medical service, and other amenities in addition to the on-site mail service.
Last year, volunteers handled 154,000 pieces of mail for guests, as they are called. The term is intentional. It dignifies the homeless individuals and reminds volunteers to extend hospitality willingly. Broad Street Ministry is believed to be Philadelphia’s largest mail service for people without a home address of their own.
Why is having an address so important? In addition to making it possible to receive letters from loved ones, guests also need a physical location for delivery of Social Security checks and packages. But even more important—an address is essential for obtaining a birth certificate and other identification. Without ID, securing a job, bank account, or rental housing is difficult—if not impossible.
According to a survey of people using services at Broad Street, 33.5% said that they had received IDs through the mail that ultimately allowed them to find housing. Almost the same number said those IDs helped them land jobs.
If you’re somewhere, then you’re someone, many of the guests believe.
“Getting mail here is one way of proving you exist,” says Brenna McGinnis, a shelter director.
Tying identity to a place to call home is common to all people. In the Old Testament, God promised to provide a land for His people, the Israelites, to settle in and establish as their home. But even so, we all have the longing for an eternal home written into our design. See 2 Corinthians 5: 1-10 for a description of what it is like to long for that permanent home.