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A school shows its heart to homeless

Barefoot and hungry, Warren Fitts limped up the slow-moving line, careful not to step on broken glass or discarded gum.

Barefoot and hungry, Warren Fitts limped up the slow-moving line, careful not to step on broken glass or discarded gum.

Suddenly, he spotted a familiar van pull over near Love Park, where he and dozens of other homeless men stood waiting.

He broke into a smile.

A handful of teenagers bounded out of the unmarked white van. Then they began piling packages of food onto a table as the gospel song "There's Been a Change," by John P. Kee, blared from stereo speakers.

The teens were students from The Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School. And each Thursday at 8 p.m., they distribute 500 toiletry bags, sack lunches, footwear, clothing and SEPTA tokens to hundreds of homeless people at Love Park and a homeless shelter at Broad Street near Ridge Avenue.

Fitts, a Love Park dweller, was in line to get a pair of sneakers.

"I wake up every day and I know there is a God," he said. "I'm working as hard as I can, and they help."

Said Carl Snell, who gets SEPTA tokens through the program: "The program is helpful for people who want help. It's not just for people who want a quick meal and a clean shirt."

Veronica Joyner, founder and chief administrative officer of MCSCS, started the project in 2006 to take the lessons of the classroom beyond the walls of the school.

"I can teach them mathematics and science and they can make a bomb," she explained, "but this program promotes citizenship and character."

Every Tuesday, envelopes are dispersed throughout the school, on Broad Street near Buttonwood, and students fill them with contributions - on average $1,000 a week or about $1 per student, Joyner said. On Wednesdays the school purchases items for the homeless.

On Thursdays around 2 p.m., about 100 students begin making sandwiches, packing care bags and sorting clothing. About 7 p.m., they begin packing items into the van and depart to their first destination, near the men's homeless shelter.

"In our community, we have a constant need," said senior Steve Butler, 18, who has been involved with the program since his sophomore year. "The program has helped me decide to work in public health."

"I thought I could probably do good out of it," said Darnell Carvalho, 19. "It [homelessness] could happen to anybody."

Standing on the sidewalk near Love Park, Travis Fitzpatrick, 44, of West Philadelphia, said that he's been a recipient of Joyner's program from the start.

"I came down here and ran into [Joyner], people with big hearts," he said. "She encouraged me to strive. Now I can deal with stuff out here in society."

Fitzpatrick said that he landed a construction job a year ago and only returns to the program's site for small supplies.

Snell, 34, explained that he needed SEPTA tokens to commute to his new job as an afterschool tutor.

"If it weren't for the program, I wouldn't have gotten this job," he said.

Joyner, who has a background in social work and education, started the program after a friend expressed concern over a lack of resources for the city's homeless.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has joined the group several times, and Joyner hints at her desire for Mayor Nutter to follow suit.

Until he does, she's content with his effort in fighting the same problem in a different way. He recently revealed his plan to increase housing for the chronically homeless. In his plan, the city will set aside 500 Philadelphia Housing Authority units, 75 "safe havens" for individuals living with addiction and health problems and 125 other subsidized residences.

"It's moving in the right direction," Joyner said smiling.

"We'll continue to feed people until there's no one left out there." *