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Time to change city's approach to homeless

Police should be able to take some off the streets.

By Paul R. Levy

This week, as City Council considers a bill that would give the city more authority to deal with homeless people on downtown streets, we will likely hear harrowing tales of visitors and residents accosted, restaurant patrons' food snatched from their plates, and subway corridors used as toilets. Meanwhile, we'll also hear passionate pleas for more funding, heartening stories of successful recovery, and accusations that the legislation seeks to sweep the unfortunate out of sight and criminalize poverty.

Let's take a step back. On any given night, about 6,000 people are homeless in the city, and 15,000 to 20,000 experience episodes of homelessness over the course of a year. A compassionate city, Philadelphia spends more than $100 million a year on services for this population, while local charities contribute millions more.

Half the city's homeless population consists of families with children, who are generally eager for shelter. Almost as many are single adults who get help in shelters or transitional housing. But 5 to 8 percent remain on city streets even when other options are offered.

Dedicated outreach workers repeatedly visit these few hundred, but they succeed in getting them off the street only a third of the time. These individuals are often deeply troubled, suffering from mental illness and needing medication they aren't taking. In the throes of addiction, some commit petty crimes; others accost and intimidate pedestrians; still others keep to themselves. A 1990s study found their mortality rate to be four times higher than normal.

During extreme weather, advocates agree that police authority can be used to bring those with impaired judgment inside. They are not arrested, but the police act to protect their lives.

The bill being considered Thursday proposes a similar approach year-round. It allows police officers to determine if a homeless person "is in need of medical assistance or social-service assistance, including ... mental health treatment, drug or alcohol rehabilitation, or homeless assistance services." If officers make that determination, they may contact a team of social-services providers to "evaluate the person's needs, and together with the officer take all reasonable steps toward directing the person to the appropriate service provider, including but not limited to offering transportation to such provider."

Why is this controversial? Because it would do away with a requirement, dating to 1999, that a social-services outreach team concur with the police before officers can do their jobs. Currently, if no outreach team is available, the police can't act. If a team arrives and services are refused, police can only write the equivalent of a parking violation. If a person's offensive conduct stops when social workers arrive but resumes when they leave, the police can do little.

Center City retailers, hotel and building managers, workers, and residents are frustrated not with homeless people in general, but with the antisocial behavior of a small, disturbed group of them.

The proposal before Council would restore a balance that worked in the late 1990s, when Philadelphia came close to getting all the homeless off the streets. First responders should always offer help. But some inappropriate and illegal conduct will persist unless there are limits and consequences.

Philadelphia's Community Court proves that a balanced approach works. Prosecutors and public defenders have joined police, social workers, and judges in this comprehensive response to quality-of-life crimes. Instead of jail, defendants get help and do community service. Between 2007 and 2009, 70 percent of those brought before the court for misdemeanors took advantage of its medical, social, and job-counseling programs, and two-thirds were not arrested again.

Only specially trained police officers should be assigned to deal with the homeless. And we should redirect resources to more effective strategies, such as a "housing first" approach that starts by giving people homes and support services; a housing-first pilot program funded by the Nutter administration had a 90 percent success rate. Homeless people also need more job opportunities like those offered by the Center City District and Ready Willing & Able.

We should offer help first by all means. But when that fails, we can't abandon people to the elements.

In our democracy, individual liberty extends to the point where it infringes on the rights of others. With increasing frequency in Center City, which produces 49 percent of Philadelphia's jobs and more than half of its tax revenue, shelter-resistant individuals are crossing that line.