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Angry advocates call for compassion after Center City Popeyes posts sign barring people who are homeless

Saying, "No homeless people allowed inside the store," the sign set up an us and them dynamic.

Pedestrians pass the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in Center City on Tuesday. This Popeyes posted a sign over the weekend that said homeless people could not enter.
Pedestrians pass the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in Center City on Tuesday. This Popeyes posted a sign over the weekend that said homeless people could not enter.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

A sign in a Center City Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen stating, “No homeless people allowed inside the store,” has repulsed and disheartened advocates who work to keep anyone experiencing homelessness from feeling like “the other.”

And the words, first noticed over the weekend at the Chestnut Street restaurant near 15th Street and since removed, brought to advocates’ minds other unsavory episodes in the city’s recent past that run counter to the “brotherly love” narrative Philadelphians like to espouse but can’t always sustain:

* The arrest of two Black men in a Center City Starbucks in 2018 who hadn’t made any purchases and refused to leave as they waited for an acquaintance.

*The sign reading, “This is America, when ordering, please speak English,” that greeted patrons at nationally known Geno’s Steaks in South Philadelphia until 2016.

“This is terrible, almost unthinkable,” said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of the anti-homelessness agency Project HOME, referencing the Popeyes sign.

Local experts on homelessness were hard-pressed to recall a similar public display of what each described as a form of bias. Although, Scullion pointed out, no one should forget that people who are homeless have frequently been the subject of physical attacks through the years, especially in Kensington.

In a startling coincidence, a sign showed up early Tuesday morning in the window of a 7-Eleven in Reno, Nev., saying, “No Homeless Allowed!” and referencing shoplifting.

A Popeyes spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday: “At Popeyes, we are committed to treating everyone with dignity and respect. All guests who follow government health and safety mandates, including wearing masks, are always welcome to dine in our restaurants.”

The reference to masks is likely connected to TMZ quoting a Popeyes manager as saying the sign was put up because some “homeless” people don’t wear masks, advocates said.

But, added Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homeless Law Center in Washington: “They could have said don’t come in if you’re not wearing masks. So what’s this about? What are they really discriminating against?”

Michael Hinson, president and chief operating officer of SELF, the largest provider of emergency housing in the city, said he believes he knows:

“Almost 75% of those experiencing housing insecurity in Philadelphia are Black. So, who are you keeping out of Popeyes?”

Margaux Murphy, director of the Sunday Love Project, a Center City nonprofit that feeds people experiencing homelessness, had a similar take: “This is something I’ve seen before. When we were serving food in LOVE Park between 2014 and 2018, businesses were saying we were drawing ‘too many undesirable people.’ ”

The Popeyes sign underscored an “us and them” dynamic that has long existed in the city, said Adam Bruckner, director of the Helping Hands Rescue Mission, which serves meals on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to people who are living homeless. “The more you know our community, the more you’d know the deep needs people have, and the more compassionate you’d be.”

What puzzles some advocates is how workers at a restaurant such as Popeyes would even know which of their customers should be excluded for being homeless. “Maybe that could be me on any given day I’m not looking my best,” Hinson said.

Americans don’t realize that so many kids who show up at a McDonald’s after school are experiencing homelessness, noted Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national homelessness education nonprofit in Washington.

The children are toting school-issued computers, looking for WiFi connections they can’t get in homeless shelters, Duffield said. “When they come in to do homework and see a sign like the one at Popeyes, what does that tell them about their worth as human beings?”

Duffield said that both McDonald’s and Walmart are known for humane treatment of people who are homeless — the former for allowing homework, the latter for letting people sleep in their cars in store parking lots.

Dunkin’ is also admired as a place that acts decently toward those who are homeless, according to Porsha Burton, who grew up transgender and homeless while attending Bensalem High School and is now a social-service worker helping homeless children in Center City.

“It’s not like they’re saying, ‘If you’re homeless, come in,’ ” Burton said. “But if you go and are respectful, they’ll leave you alone. I’ve seen it a million times.”

She added that it’s important for a person who is homeless to come in out of the cold once in a while, maybe use the bathroom, get their bearings. The Popeyes sign, she said, did surprise her: “It’s ridiculous that it’s 2021 and this is happening in Center City.”

Adam Al-Asad, director of operations for Savage Sisters, a Kensington nonprofit that helps people who are homeless, believes Center City is “a lot less inclined to sympathize with people experiencing housing insecurity” than Kensington. “Certain neighborhoods are more willing to help.”

Don’t write off Center City completely, said Hinson, who explained that the Convention Center and other nearby businesses have raised $1 million to help those who are homeless through an organization called PHL Cares.

Neither the Center City District nor the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia could be reached for comment.

Though the Popeyes signage was “troubling,” according to a statement from Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, “incidents like this are, thankfully, rare and isolated. In our experience, Philadelphia’s businesses have been compassionate and active partners in supporting Philadelphians experiencing homelessness.”

Still, said Dean Beer, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project in Center City, questions remain: “Who made and approved of the decision to post this sign? What measures can we as a society take to protect and respect the dignity of our unhoused neighbors?

“There needs to be accountability.”