A proposed update of Philadelphia's sidewalk-behavior ordinance triggered protests at City Hall by homeless advocates Thursday.
The measure does raise a thorny but legitimate question for debate: Should police be allowed to take sterner action when troubled individuals act out on city streets yet refuse social services that might help them?
Responding to understandable pleas from downtown retailers, hotel and building mangers, residents, and commuters, City Councilman Frank DiCicco hopes to amend a 1999 ordinance to better target aggressive behavior, including panhandling.
Anyone who frequents Center City knows there's a core group who act aggressively, often due to addictions, mental-health problems, or other issues. Their numbers appear to be up over the last decade, even as the city has had success with homeless programs.
Charting the impact of bad behavior by panhandlers and others isn't easy, but it cannot make Center City an attractive place to do business, live, or visit. A typical online warning from hotel guests read, "we were literally asked to give money from panhandlers . . . every 10 feet." That's more than a public-relations problem, since the city's economic future rests on a thriving downtown.
Establishing policies to give police officers more authority to intervene when presented with aggressive street behavior doesn't mean they can't involve social services. Indeed, the Police Department for years has worked with outreach teams doing just that, and specially trains its officers.
That said, DiCicco faces a challenge. His first tweak of the rules would have freed officers to enforce disorderly-conduct standards even if they didn't involve an outreach worker, as is now required. But after the proposal was called inhumane by Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME, DiCicco narrowed its scope.
That's appropriate. As Scullion noted, troubled people on the streets are primarily a "social-services and health problem." And the city spends $100 million annually on programs that certainly qualify as a deeply humane response to such suffering.
Yet, given the persistence of aggressive panhandling and other threatening behavior by a relative few, DiCicco's pursuit of a firmer hand is also justified to help convince more of these individuals to accept the help they need.