News from HUD
Philly News , Alfred Lubrano, Inquirer Staff Writer
Against the odds, Winfred Surrency, former Marine and a heroin addict, survived 20 years living inside appliance boxes or on grates on Philadelphia's streets.
Now, with the help of local agencies and the federal government, Surrency, a battered 59, lives in a single-bedroom apartment in East Oak Lane, grateful for walls, furniture, and life.
Sweet-natured but tough, he once foiled a robbery at a Center City Starbucks, and now grateful baristas supply him with free one-pound bags of Dark Sumatra and other coffees every week.
After he had a cup or two Monday, Surrency, who usually doesn't get many visitors, was called on by a mayor, a congressman, and a cabinet member. They were there to congratulate him for getting off the streets, and to anoint him as a symbol of hope for other homeless veterans.
"You're an ambassador for us," Mayor Nutter told Surrency.
"I like the job title," Surrency said, smiling. "I know I'm living proof the program works."
Surrency was referring to the program that supplies homeless veterans with housing-assistance vouchers, the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan was in town - and Surrency's apartment - to announce a $349,362 federal grant to the Philadelphia Housing Authority. PHA and the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia will provide the assistance. Nonprofit agencies such as Pathways to Housing PA, which helped Surrency find his $800-a-month apartment and furnish it, will aid the veterans in their day-to-day lives.
The money is part of a $60 million award to local public housing agencies throughout the country. The grants offer permanent supportive housing to homeless veterans whose backgrounds are vetted for serious crimes.
Donovan, who earlier in the day addressed an international homelessness conference at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered President Obama's message that the administration is working to end veterans' homelessness by 2015. Obama has set a goal of ending homelessness among children, young people, and families by 2020.
Somewhat overwhelmed by the attention from his visitors, Surrency quietly answered questions about his difficult life, which he said included having his neck broken by an assailant and getting shot in the feet while he slept in a box in Center City.
"What'd it feel like the first day you walked into this apartment?" Donovan asked.
"I got on my knees and prayed," said Surrency, who was born in Camden and served two years stateside in the Marines after the Vietnam War ended.
"What's your story going to be five years from now?" asked U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa).
"Success," said Surrency, who once trained as a cook. "Staying sober and going back to cooking."
As his guests, including PHA president and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah, listened, Surrency talked about the "awesome meanness" of Camden, where someone murdered his sister by poisoning her.
With so much lost from his childhood, Surrency was able to retain his trumpet, held for him by a relative during the endlessly turbulent years of Surrency's life.
He's a fan of John Coltrane, whose CDs are sent to him by a former Starbucks employee at the store at 13th and Chestnut Streets, where Surrency stopped the robbery.
About a year or so ago, Surrency said, his streetwise eyes noticed that two men had been inside the Starbucks men's room for a long time. The young manager was closing up when Surrency, who correctly guessed that the two men in the bathroom were thieves, told her to call the police. She did, and the two men were arrested.
Now, Surrency listens to Coltrane on the CD player sent along by the former Starbucks employee.
"I'm going to say hi to the president for you," Donovan told Surrency. He beamed.
"My future's brighter," Surrency said. "I live like a human being again. And I'll take this any day. It's amazing I'm still living.
"I'm going to stay around and listen to Coltrane. I'll be all right."