We want the homeless now encamped nightly outside the Convention Center to sleep somewhere else.

That was the response by some readers to an Inquirer story last week by my colleagues Aubrey Whelan and Mensah Dean. The story reported that with the construction of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and LOVE Park, more homeless people are now sleeping in the underpass outside the Convention Center. What was hidden in the shadows is now in plain sight.


It's uncomfortable to walk past. It's dirty. We wouldn't want Democrats coming to town to be confronted with the crisis of humanity on our streets.

But if we want these people to move somewhere else, we must first admit that for Philadelphia's homeless, somewhere else so often means somewhere else on the street.

If by some miracle the 50-some souls sleeping outside the Convention Center all raised their hands and said, "Yes, we will come inside," the truth is that we likely would have nowhere to send so many of them.

That even if there was room in the city's strapped emergency and supportive housing system - and so often there isn't - the best we may be able to offer people struggling with any host of addictions and mental illnesses is a bed to sleep in, or sometimes only a chair to sleep upright in.

The city has upward of 14,000 units of emergency and long-term housing for the homeless, said Elizabeth Hersh, the new director of the city's Office of Supportive Housing. That ranges from those shelter beds to permanent housing needed to break someone's cycle of homelessness.

"That is occupied by human beings," Hersh said. "Almost to a person, it's almost full every night."

The city's homeless shelters and safe havens are, on average, 90 percent full. The permanent housing is always full.

Many people linger in shelters for months, awaiting housing, Hersh said, while outreach teams do all they can to connect people with available housing and help.

"Right now, we're nibbling around the edges," she said.

For the Democratic National Convention, the city has found $61,000 in its budget for 100 temporary beds for homeless people. Like during a Code Blue in the winter, they said. So it's an emergency when it's freezing and when we have company. Regardless, it may bring more people inside.

It's not that we're overwhelmed by an influx of homeless - about 700 people live on the streets in Philadelphia, compared with, say, 4,000 in San Francisco - it's that we're not fully committing to solving the problem.

Sometimes we ignore problems until we're forced to walk over them.

We know what works. Philly has in recent years had success in reducing homelessness by moving away from shelters to permanent supportive housing.

And we know what we need.

More permanent housing with services for those who need it. More pathways to housing for addicted homeless people. State funding cuts have left many addicted homeless with no assistance and nowhere to turn after recovery, said Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME. So they head back to the streets.

We also need better services geared to the fast-growing population of homeless that is young and addicted. We need more partnerships with the private sector.

This isn't a problem City Hall can solve on its own.

Hersh, as Mayor Kenney's point person on homelessness, brings fresh eyes to the issue. She has committed to reviewing the whole system to make sure we're spending the money we have wisely.

We've got to fix where we fail.

Of the city's 700 homeless people, some 300 are in Kensington. But there is only one full-time outreach worker dedicated to the neighborhood, Scullion said.

Yet, on any given day, we have 10 to 12 outreach workers dedicated to Center City.

We can't pick and choose when it comes to human beings sleeping on the street. We must help those in the shadows as we help those under the Convention Center lights.