IT'S NOT A CRIME to be homeless.
A citywide coalition of advocates, providers and concerned citizens who make up the "Solutions Not Citations" campaign won an important victory on this point last week when a bill from City Councilman Frank DiCicco that would have amended the city's sidewalk behavior ordinance to allow police to cite or arrest people on the streets without trying to connect them to social services was held back.
Still, the fight continues, with a new bill and amendments to be introduced today. Amid the lawyerly language and promises that this effort is about a panhandling menace that's somehow ruining Center City (it's not), there's no denying the central point - this changes Philadelphia's focus from support and recovery into something punitive.
We're moving subtly away from an ideal that asks what's the best way to get people in distress the proper help and toward a movement that asks what's the most effective way to get people who make us feel uncomfort-
able out of sight.
To be clear, no one is defending aggressive panhandling.
What we are asking for is legislation that's equally clear on that point, that isn't so broad and vague as to ensnare people who aren't criminals. When most of us encounter sidewalk behavior that you might call aggressive, let's remember that in most cases that person suffers from behavioral health issues: addiction, mental illness, or both. Do we really want police officers arresting people who are mentally ill? Is that who we are?
DiCicco told the Daily News that "hoteliers are complaining."
That may be true. But anecdotal evidence isn't a good rationale for legislation. The actual data paints a different picture.
According to Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District, the entire district averages 65 homeless people on the streets in summer months (40 in winter) and 20 to 25 panhandlers. Estimates are that a dozen could be termed problematic.
Now, certainly, a dozen panhandlers is a dozen too many. But still - a dozen problem people in Center City? That's some kind of epidemic for which we want to rewrite existing and successful legislation? It's kind of an insult to Philadelphia to suggest that we need to call 9-1-1 to deal with this. We're better than that. This is Philly. We can hack it.
Certainly, tourism is important in the city. But tourism is booming.
Greater Philadelphia welcomed more than 37 million visitors last year, tourism overall is up 4 percent, overnight stays are up 10 percent. Philadelphia's tourism industry is seeing growth far better than the national average. Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Marketing Tourism Corp., said just last month: "Philadelphia has arrived."
If the handful of people on the street each month in Center City are supposedly hurting tourism, why aren't they actually hurting it? Can tourism be hurting and thriving at the same time? Are the city's homeless using some kind of weird reverse psychology?
In a time when the city is cutting services - including closing RHD Ridge Center, the city's largest men's homeless shelter - there are fewer places to go and fewer resources available for people in distress. We can't arrest our way out of that problem.
The sidewalk-behavior ordinance has been a positive tool for addressing homelessness, mandating that police must first issue a warning and connect people with an outreach worker and supportive services.
Philadelphia is seen as a national model in combating homelessness because we've placed an emphasis on intervention and treatment. Street homelessness is dramatically lower than in other major cities'.
Philadelphia should stick with what works, instead of risking a profoundly regressive change in the way we treat our fellow citizens, in who we are and who we want to be.
Kevin Roberts is the editor of One Step Away, Philadelphia's street newspaper produced and distributed by people experiencing homelessness.