By Sister Mary Scullion
In one city, the mayor promises to be the first to end chronic homelessness. In another, officials consider making it a crime to lie or sit on downtown sidewalks.
Remarkably, both of these cities are Philadelphia. Mayor Nutter made his bold prediction about homelessness twice in recent weeks while celebrating the opening of new residential facilities for homeless people. Meanwhile, City Councilman Frank DiCicco has introduced an amendment of the city's 1999 Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance that would empower police to cite or arrest homeless people in Center City without providing social services, as currently mandated.
The problems with DiCicco's bill, beyond its sheer inhumanity, are manifold. Frivolous citations would create legal problems for homeless people, hampering their efforts to get housing and services and break the cycle of homelessness. Violations of their basic rights could lead to costly litigation. And enforcement would waste precious city resources while forcing many homeless people out of Center City and into nearby neighborhoods, shifting the problem rather than solving it.
But the worst aspect of the bill is that it represents a huge step backward for Philadelphia. The city is seen by many as a leader in developing effective solutions to homelessness, and the number of people on the streets is dramatically lower than in other major cities.
The current Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance has in fact helped, emphasizing supportive services over criminalization. When it was passed, the city committed $6 million to enhanced homeless outreach and entry-level residences, which significantly reduced the number of people on the streets of Center City in subsequent years.
In fact, as idealistic as it sounds, Nutter's goal of ending chronic homelessness in Philadelphia is not far-fetched. Even in recent months, despite the severe economic downturn, we have seen signs of the city's continuing progress in the battle against homelessness.
Covenant House recently opened a new facility for homeless youths. Project H.O.M.E. and Bethesda Project - with much support, it should be noted, from the nearby business community - recently opened Connelly House, providing 79 units of Center City housing for men and women who were once on the streets.
A number of local organizations and the city government are participating in the nationwide 100,000 Homes Campaign, with the goal of developing appropriate housing for many of Philadelphia's most vulnerable long-term homeless people over the next two years. And, later this summer, a nonprofit-business partnership will unveil a multiyear plan for hundreds of new units of permanent housing.
Let's keep our focus on such real solutions. We must build on our track record of success and finish the job of ending chronic homelessness. That's the kind of city we are.
And if there are genuine concerns about aggressive panhandling in Center City - which has more to do with addiction than homelessness - let's do what Philadelphians have done in the past: Get government, nonprofit, and business interests together to study the issue, understand what we're dealing with, and develop solutions that respond to the needs of people in difficult situations while enhancing the quality of life in Center City.
Let's not try to police the problem out of sight and out of mind. This is not the time to waste city resources on a proposal as ill-advised, inhumane, and counterproductive as DiCicco's. We're better than that. Fortunately, many on City Council know this, and we hope they vote against this bill.