In last-minute negotiations Tuesday, advocates for the homeless and representatives of the Center City District reached a compromise on how police should handle aggressive begging and other disorderly conduct on city sidewalks.
The action came just before the start of a City Council hearing on proposed changes to the city's 12-year-old Sidewalk Behavior ordinance.
More than 50 protesters carrying signs that read "Housing Not Harassment" and "Solutions Not Citations" filled Council chambers. But with the compromise, the Streets and Services Committee unanimously voted to support the revised amendment.
The two sides agreed not to change the language of the 1999 sidewalk ordinance, which sets safeguards for how police apprehend homeless people living on the streets. Under that city law, police must work with social services experts in approaching homeless people.
But the amendment that the committee supported simply clarifies how police should proceed in difficult situations.
It says that the safeguards under the sidewalk ordinance, barring police from acting without help from a homeless outreach team, do not apply if someone is being disorderly, including using obscene language or acting in a threatening or intimidating way.
The amendment also does not single out the homeless but rather addresses disorderly actions. The committee did not change the sidewalk ordinance's language, but it added a one-sentence amendment that clarifies what to do in the case of disorderly conduct. Council is expected to vote on the matter June 16.
Instead of a full-blown hearing, City Councilman Frank DiCicco allowed the two most prominent voices in the debate - Sister Mary Scullion, cofounder of Project HOME, and Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District - to address the committee.
Scullion, whose nonprofit organization provides services and housing to homeless people, called the "amended amended bill" a victory for advocates.
For the last few weeks, she and others had been working behind the scenes to thwart an effort to give police more leeway in apprehending homeless people living on the streets.
An earlier version of the amendment would have let police decide whether a homeless outreach team was needed to handle situations.
Homeless advocates feared that the changes would have criminalized homelessness.
But Levy emphasized that the safeguards of the sidewalk ordinance will be protected. The new amendment, he said, simply clarifies what police can do in difficult situations.
He said the amendment does not single out homeless people, but rather addresses actions.
"This compromise is a middle ground," Levy said. "It's about behavior, not your status in life."
Levy said the 1999 sidewalk ordinance was silent on disorderly conduct and created "confusion" for police.
The Center City District, a special tax zone that supports downtown businesses and residents, has received persistent complaints from restaurants, hotels and others in the tourism trade about aggressive panhandling. While many who beg on the streets are homeless, some are not.
Advocates for the homeless oppose any change to the language of the 1999 sidewalk behavior ordinance.
In a statement, a coalition of groups said it recognized that there were legitimate concerns about panhandling in Center City and the impact it has on the area's quality of life.
But the group said just 20 to 25 people were behind the most aggressive panhandling in the downtown commercial area, according to information from the Center City District.
"This scale of problem does not merit a legislative approach at all," the coalition said in a statement. "Further, we believe that there are already sufficient legal tools to deal with criminal or other behaviors that can legitimately be considered 'aggressive.' "