Gloria Guard

Judith Rodin
Paul R. Levy

The executive director, and then president, of the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) from 1983 until 2010, Gloria Guard won the Philadelphia Award for her untiring advocacy, stellar fundraising, and compassion in aiding homeless families. Guard transformed a small homeless shelter in the basement of a church into a thriving organization, providing housing and social services to over 400 homeless people each year.

A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Guard was a teenager when her family moved to Washington, D.C. Her father was a Senate staffer with “a deep commitment to social justice;” her mother was a concert pianist. A sociology major at Trinity College, Guard has joked that she partied harder than she studied. By the age of 30, Guard was divorced with two children, relying on food stamps to feed her family. Fortunately, she received a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, where she earned two Master’s degrees, relating to social work and public policy.

Guard developed policy for the Pennsylvania department of welfare for five years. She had some positive influence on legislation, but (according to a profile by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney)“she felt disconnected from the people she wanted to help, and disgusted by the ‘egotistical, arrogant, self-important geniuses,’ with whom she dealt in Washington, who made decisions for the poor but did not seem to know or talk to them.”

In 1983, Guard began working as director of the People’s Emergency Center, which provided hot meals and shelter on the weekends to a half-dozen homeless families, at the Asbury Methodist Church in West Philadelphia. Homeless families are largely invisible to the public, since they usually live in shelters and are not panhandlers. The center serves mothers with children, as well as a smaller number of teenage girls without children. Typically, the mothers who live at the center are under twenty-one, have never held a job, read at a fourth grade level, and have been abused as children.

Guard took a tough but compassionate approach to managing the PEC. She established strict rules—no drinking, no drugs, no stealing. Residents are allowed about ten dollars out of their welfare checks for spending, and the rest must be saved for rent money when they leave. The shelter is “transitional” housing, with the expectation that residents will leave within a year. Guard’s approach is effective---90% of residents do not return to homelessness.

This firm approach is combined with Guard’s conviction that homeless persons usually require extensive social services to turn their lives around. Consequently, the center has developed many of these services, including parenting classes, job training and placement, drug and alcohol counseling, and case management by social workers. All this is expensive, but Guard argues, “You get what you pay for.”

In 1990 Guard moved the People’s Emergency Center from its cramped quarters to a spacious, renovated factory at 39th and Spring Garden streets. Two years later, Guard raised the funds to renovate 30 abandoned row houses, which were made available to homeless families at an affordable price, provided that the parent completed “life skills” and mortgage management classes, saved $3000, and held a job for 18 months. By 2010, the PEC had renovated 200 subsidized housing units near the center, and started 25 neighborhood businesses.

An exceptional fundraiser, Guard raised $125 million while heading the People’s Emergency Center, ending with a $7 million annual budget, over 90 employees, and a remarkable vision. When receiving the Philadelphia Award, Guard expressed her hope that one day Philadelphia would be “the first place in the country where all citizens can elevate themselves and prosper.”

David Haugaard

Sources: “Profile of Gloria Guard,” Gloria Guard Info, The following are all articles from the Philadelphia Inquirer: Edgar Williams, “Spirit to Share at a West Philadelphia Shelter, the Donations Roll In,” Dec. 25, 1985; Vernon Loeb, “Where Homeless Women Can Learn How to Be Mothers,” March 20, 1987; Loeb, “Consensus on Agenda for the Homeless,” March 8, 1987; Henry Goldman, “City Homeless Policy is Questioned,” Nov. 16, 1988; Amy S. Rosenberg, “In a Shelter, Room to Rebuild Women and Children Also Get Privacy,” Nov. 14, 1990; Craig R. McCoy, “Shelter Hopes to Turn Homeless into Homeowners,” Nov. 28, 1992; Daniel Rubin, “$500,000 Gift a Start for a Home, the Donor Knew Tough Times of her Own,” June 15, 1994; Bella English, “Santorum, on a Philadelphia Field Trip, Gives Funds and Gets Feedback,” Sept. 26, 1995; Monica Kant Kinney, “Gloria Guard went from Bureaucracy to the Front Line,” Dec. 26, 2000; Pauline Pinard Bogaert, “Gloria Guard, Helper of Homeless, Wins Philadelphia Award,” May 31, 2005; Jennifer Lin and Joseph A. Slobodzian, “The New Mandate: First, Find Them a Home,” Feb. 25, 2008; Editorial, “Street People—No Place like a Home,” Feb. 29, 2008; Alfred Lubrano, “City, PHA have Plan to House Homeless,” May 29, 2008; Jennifer Lin, “Philadelphia Program to Ease Homelessness Shows Results,” May 27, 2009; Lin, “City’s Homeless Children are ‘Urgent’ Problem,” June 9, 2009; Lin, “First Residents Move into Apartments for the Hard to Place,” Oct. 22, 2009; Lin, “Philadelphia Shelter President to Resign,” Jan. 1, 2010; Jeff Shields and Patrick Kerkstra, “”Soda Tax off Table; Nutter Vows Cuts,” May 21, 2010; Caroline Stewart, “Social Circuit,” June 30, 2010; Lin, “Changing of the Guard: Farah Jiminez to Lead Agency,” July 19, 2010. Photo: Image courtesy of the People’s Emergency Center. Comment: Guard is a blunt, plainspoken advocate for the homeless. In response to the view that homelessness was primarily a winter problem, Guard remarked, “Homelessness is not a winter problem. Mental illness, chemical dependency, wife-battering and unemployment simply do not go away in the spring.”