PHILADELPHIA, Penn. — “A normal day? We don’t never have a normal day. It’s always like, woah!” said postwoman Zenaida Santigo.
That's not typically how you would expect someone who delivers mail to describe their day, but Santigo isn’t your neighborhood postwoman and she doesn't work at a normal post office.
“They be cursing us out, 'we didn’t get our mail. Woah!'” said Santigo.
Santigo makes sure her community's homeless people get their mail. Sometimes they're frustrated or stressed, but don't get it confused, she cares about her clients a lot.
“That’s just the heart I got, like I’ve always been like that, like to help them make sure they get what they need,” she said.
Santigo works at the post office at Prevention Point, a public health organization in Philadelphia which offers harm reduction services. One of the services they offer is a mail service, which can give homeless people a place to get mail and even more important – an address.
“With an address you can get, for instance, your voter registration card. For Social Security benefits, you need an actual address. For a birth certificate or your driver’s license,” said Donald Whitehead, the executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless.
Basically, to have access to most, if not all, government services, you need an address. And just ask Whitehead how quickly not having an address can become a life altering issue.
“To get that ID, you need a birth certificate, do get the birth certificate, you need an address, so it’s this kind of snowball effect where information and identification is very important,” said Whitehead.
It all comes back to an address. At the Prevention Point post office, you can get that address. That address can change your life.
“What we discovered was if we provide them a space to get mail that they could become Medicaid eligible and then health outcomes become better,” said Jose Benitez, the executive director of Prevention Point.
He’s says in addition to helping people get documents, benefits and health care, it offers another benefit.
“The mail, what it becomes is this part of our program that also allows us to reconnect with people, and so it’s another way for us, when we’re looking for someone to connect us to a service,” said Benitez.
What does that mean exactly? Prevention Point offers a ton of services besides mail. Needle exchange, medical treatment, HIV testing and much more. They use the mail service to talk to and check in with people who use it and guide them to other services they might need.
“It’s a really nice way to do some outreach,” said Benitez.
It’s a nice way to do some outreach to a growing number of people at Prevention Point.
“Pre-COVID, we were seeing about 1,000 people in our mail program. We now have over 4,000 that get mail here,” said Benitez.
That’s a huge increase in a really short time. While there’s no direct data tying the pandemic to an increase in homelessness, Donald says it’s pretty easy to connect the dots.
“We’re already seeing shelters at capacity, we’re already seeing evictions, even though there’s a moratorium in place, we still see evictions happening every day. Unless there’s a dramatic intervention by the federal government, those numbers could really go through the roof,” said Whitehead.
COVID also means no more people coming into the post office to get mail but handing it through a gate instead. While that’s tough, people like Santigo and the rest of the staff at Prevention Point are going to make the people who need it get their mail, because it’s important.
“They're like a part of me I see them every day, I work with them every day, I help them every day. They’re like family to me,” said Santigo.
Through rain, wind, sleet, snow and a pandemic, people are going to keep getting their mail there.